On Thanksgiving Day, while a pair of families gather in their dreary suburban Pennsylvania town, two young girls are kidnapped. That night a strange RV is investigated and it’s mentally stunted owner held for questioning, but when he is let go, one of the fathers pursues him further. He clashes with a veteran detective, and as time slips away, each character seems to slip slowly into madness as they search for the missing girls.
An impressive ensemble cast is led by Hugh Jackman as survivalist and vigilante father Keller Dover, while Jake Gyllenhaal plays the tattooed, wide-eyed detective on the case. Maria Bello is Jackman’s wife, and Terrance Howard and Viola Davis play the other grieving couple. Paul Dano is exceptionally creepy and Melissa Leo plays his strange aunt.
Montreal filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), a man who always seems to be smiling, joking, and having fun, directs a star-studded cast in this very heavy and emotionally engaging crime drama. Prisoners challenges its actors as well as its viewers to go to some dark recesses of the mind when two young girls are abducted.
We don’t see who takes them or from where, but an eerie, conspicuous RV rolls into their quiet neighbourhood, parking on the street without anyone exiting. The hesitant way the camera approaches this vehicle, and indeed the way in which each shot seems to creep around this gray, cloudy world is ominous.
Flash to Detective Loki, who initially is hard to read, from his sullen look, tempered speech, and tattoos – he’s also dining alone on Thanksgiving night – and this is quickly a film that, while often teasing the viewer and letting imagination run wild, is taut and tense.
It is indeed about the ways in which people respond to such a personal and tragic crisis, and one that too is time sensitive. While Grace (Bello) is too stricken with despair to do anything but stay in bed, her brooding, bearded survivalist husband, whose basement comes fully stocked for an apocalyptic scenario, zombie or otherwise, slowly goes mad, drinking more than sleeping.
He becomes sure that a mentally-challenged young man (Dano) is responsible; the police fail to find any evidence. Rain and snow fall as hours and days slowly tick by in this rather depressing time of year, and it seems that at any time something shocking or revelatory can happen – and it does, maybe half the time.
Villeneuve explores institutionalism versus individualism, as Keller follows his own course, a path that pits him up against Loki and due process. Not simply visually dark, Keller’s vigilantism borders on grotesque as a man out of control; Jackman is at times terrifying. So is Dano, but in a different way: his blank stare hidden behind a bloody and beaten face is exceptionally unnerving.
This tension-filled, impressively-executed lengthy mystery is potent and staggering, waiting as long as possible before letting the audience know what is happening, teasing and provoking all the way. Villeneuve keeps the viewer in a state of suspended terror, and so while sometimes there is no delivery, when something does in fact happen, it’s arresting. Gyllenhaal may be peculiar, but Jackman with fear in his eyes and rage in his heart is unforgettable,
Should You See It?
A gripping piece of cinema with some impressive actors, it’s a nice transition from summer bombast to fall drama. Plus, it’s directed by a Canadian!