Prisoners, the latest film from director Denis Villeneuve (who previously made the Oscar-nominated Incendies), opens with the Lord’s Prayer as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) watches his teenage son shoot a deer in the snowy wilderness of rural Pennsylvania. As they drive home with the animal in the bed of their pickup, Dover imparts some sage advice while Ocean’s Put Your Hand in the Hand ominously plays on the radio.
Clearly, we’re in for some serious stuff.
Dover is something of a survivalist and doomsday prepper, with a stockpile of goods in his basement ready for when society breaks down. But there’s something he’s not prepared to handle: the sudden disappearance of his young daughter, who goes missing from their quiet suburban neighborhood along with a friend on Thanksgiving Day.
The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whose camper van was in the area, and who attempts to flee when confronted by police. But Jones, who has the IQ of a 10-year-old, reveals nothing during questioning, and forensics turns up nothing in his van. Twenty minutes into this 2.5-hour film, and the investigation has hit a dead end.
The rest of Prisoners follows two very divergent searches for the girls: Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) follows police protocol while Keller follows the only lead he has; as each day goes by, less and less likely that his daughter will be found alive, he does unimaginable things in the name of getting her back.
This is an exceptionally well-crafted and morally complex drama, and boy, is it serious: this is a far more grim experience than most audiences will be expecting from their Jackman-Gyllenhaal thriller. But Prisoners is at its best when challenging its audience: the lines between right and wrong are continuously blurred, and frequently change based on the information we’re given.
It’s also beautifully shot by 10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, who perfectly captures the hopelessness of a perpetually overcast Pennsylvania winter, tightly edited (despite the long runtime) by Clint Eastwood’s longtime editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach, and hauntingly scored by Jóhann Jóhannsson.
In fact, every technical aspect of this film is first-rate. The terrific cast also features Mario Bello as Dover’s wife, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard as the parents of the other missing girl, who are also put in a difficult position, and Melissa Leo as Jones’ protective aunt. Even the small character roles, like Wayne Duvall as the police captain and David Dastmalchian as a strange young man, are perfect.
I especially loved the low-key presentation; a key piece of information – something said in the heat of the moment that spurs Keller into action – is not entirely intelligible upon first viewing. Did he hear it? Was it in his head? Such a key moment, which would be emphasized in other films or at least clarified in flashback later on, is lost to us on an initial viewing (though it may be revealed on subsequent viewings). Perfect.
But there was also something bugging me here. Really bugging me.
The script, by Aaron Guzikowski, features a lot of great character development – with Jackman’s Dover, which is expected, but also Gyllenhaal, a man who we know precious little about – and delivers a resonant story, concluding with a satisfying ambiguity. But it also employs a plot fueled by the worst kind of mystery movie coincidence and contrivance.
I dunno, maybe I’ve been spoiled by the kind of realism afforded to TV detective series like Homicide or The Wire. But the plotting of Prisoners feels like it was lifted from one of those 1990s Morgan Freeman/Ashley Judd dime store thrillers.
Police work has been replaced by contrivance: not only is Loki, seemingly, the only investigator working on this case, but the evidence he finds has been dictated by the needs of the plot. He randomly comes across clues, and even stumbles, quite literally, upon a body at one point, which is unrelated to the case… or is it?
For all the first-rate effort that went into the making of this film, I was dismayed that the plot followed such familiar and conventional Hollywood protocol – not formula, per se, but all the little beats and tics and leaps of faith you don’t expect to have to grant such an otherwise harsh and realistic film. I hated the fact that, less than halfway through the movie, I knew exactly how the plot was going to resolve itself.
But that’s not enough for me not to give Prisoners anything less than a solid recommendation: this is, otherwise, an incredibly fine-tuned film throughout every element of its production. I only wish the same care had gone into crafting a more believable plot.