By Chad Berman
Movies about child abductions are inescapably more terrifying than true horror films. They are grounded in a sense of realism that is not present within the plethora of paranormal and supernatural horror films released in recent memory.
Although technically not a horror film, “Prisoners” is downright scary. The events that transpire within the masterful thriller resonate with us because they can and do happen. It is a torturing horror that grabs hold and never lets go.
The film, directed by Oscar nominee Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), is a gritty and riveting adult drama that transcends the long and often mediocre history of its genre. The film opens with a shot of a snowy forest. A deer mulls about, munching on shrubbery. The barrel of a rifle enters the scene. A father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), recites the Lord’s Prayer as his son shoots the deer. Direct hit. This jarring opening scene is just the foundation of the moral distress that follows in the next two and a half hours.
On the drive home, with the deer in the trunk, Keller tells his son how proud he is of him and how he must always “pray for the best and prepare for the worst.” Keller, a private contractor and religious man, keeps an apocalypse shelter in his basement, packed with several years’ worth of supplies. This obvious symbolism hangs over the characters’ heads, especially Keller’s, after the events of the film unfold in a calculated and systematic manner. Keller, his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their children have not yet experienced what he calls “the worst.” Not even close.
During a Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (portrayed by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), both families’ young daughters go for a walk from which they never return. What follows is a slow-burning character study of what lengths we as humans will go to in order to bring back someone we love.
Enter Jake Gyllenhaal, with a brilliant yet understated performance. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is the obsessive officer assigned to the case. Loki finds a suspicious RV that was seen in the neighborhood where the girls were taken. Inside is a frightened man named Alex Jones, played with chilling ambiguity by Paul Dano. It is unclear just how deeply involved in the crime Jones is, if at all. But the police soon determine that Jones has an IQ under 10, rendering the lead insufficient. Alex is ultimately released into his aunt’s (Melissa Leo) custody, while Keller is understandably furious that the police failed to find any conclusive evidence against him.
The narrative then rotates between Loki’s investigation and the families’ struggles in dealing with the unspeakable loss of their daughters. Keller, certain of Jones’s guilt, eventually reaches his boiling point and decides to take matters into his own hands, kidnapping Jones.
Despite the uncertainty of the man’s culpability in the crime, Keller and a hesitant Franklin subject him to intense torture and abuse in order to elicit any information he may have about their daughters. The opaqueness of Jones’s guilt muddles the audience’s perception of Keller’s and Franklin’s motivations, despite their desperate plight.
The two standouts among the cast are Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman plays Keller with a ferocious intensity unbridled with raw emotion, under which lies the fear that he has failed to protect his family. Alongside Jackman, Gyllenhaal is fantastic in his role as Loki, bringing an unhinged sense of moral duty to the character.
“Prisoners,” in the hands of a less capable auteur, would have been an utter failure at what it was trying to accomplish. Its goal was to paint a vivid and visceral picture of the mental and physical anguish associated with the ultimate loss — the kidnapping of a child. It could have easily been melodramatic or failed to connect with the audience.
However, “Prisoners” does not succumb to the tropes that cripple many films of the genre. Plot twists fit within the narrative and characters’ actions are carefully calculated and consistent with their dispositions. The actors play each character with a sympathetic conviction that helps the audience relate. The film strips these characters bare, breaking them down to their most primal and tortured, and our hearts break along with the characters.
The already taut script is bolstered by around-the-horn impeccable performances and eerie cinematography. Now, this movie is not for the faint of heart. The constant and seemingly unrelenting ebb and flow of intense drama is taxing on the audience. It is exhausting, yet ultimately rewarding, as the film plows through to its satisfying and electric conclusion. This is definitely a must-see before the awards season arrives.