Do not go to Prisoners expecting to see Hugh Jackman doing his best impersonation of Liam Neeson in Taken. The trailers may have led you to anticipate a thriller about a father who will break any law to save his abducted daughter. That’s exactly what you will get — but it will not be triumphant. It will not be “kick-ass.” It will be two and a half harrowing hours of exploring the ugliness that can ensue when someone decides to place the safety of his loved ones above every other moral consideration.
Québécois director Denis Villeneuve, who gained notice a few years ago with Incendies, is not always subtle in his first star-studded drama. Prisoners opens with a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer, as lower-middle-class Everyman Keller Dover (Jackman) coaches his teenage son (Dylan Minnette) through shooting a deer.
All the elements of the movie’s conflict are in this opening scene: the Christian mandate of forgiveness, a violent world, the will to survive. When Dover instructs his son to prepare for every eventuality, we know his own preparation will be tested. That much is predictable, but powerful performances, a twisty script and electrifying direction prevent us from sitting back and feeling superior to these characters. Their dilemmas become ours.
The Dovers have just finished Thanksgiving dinner with their friends, the Birches (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard), when the 6-year-old daughters of both families go for a jaunt around the block. They don’t return. A camper seen parked in the vicinity yields up a terrified suspect (Paul Dano), but he lacks the IQ to tell a straight story, and the police lack sufficient evidence to hold him. Dover rages at the lawmen and decides to take matters into his own hands, while Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) continues doggedly with his investigation.
It would be wrong to reveal what happens next, beyond saying that both men’s quests take them to dark places, figuratively and literally. Shot in wintry Georgia, Prisoners is full of pounding rain and sleet and grubby streets, living rooms and basements. Roger Deakins, the Coen brothers’ go-to cinematographer, uses erratic flashes and glimmers of light to suggest that deliverance is always close at hand, but not close enough.
Is Aaron Guzikowski’s script a bit too programmatic in its bleakness? Probably, and some twists near the end demand suspension of disbelief. The movie could have made better use of Howard and Davis, whose characters offer a counterpoint — but, ultimately, a weak one — to Dover’s primal vigilantism.
Gyllenhaal and Melissa Leo (as the suspect’s aunt) have roles they can sink their teeth into, however. And for Jackman, this is a career changer on the order of Bradley Cooper’s performance in Silver Linings Playbook. Audiences flock to Jackman’s movies because he combines a musclebound, thuggy physique with Byronic sensitivity: He’d hurt people for you, but he wouldn’t hurt you. That’s true of the bristling, volatile Dover, as well — his wife (Maria Bello) has always seen him as a protector — but it’s not so easy for him to draw lines between the innocent and the guilty. There are no emo superheroes here.
As the story progresses, we realize that Dover and his sometimes-antagonist Loki are two sides of a coin: Both sworn to protect the weak, they unleash inner monsters when anyone accuses them of faltering in that mission. Equally clear is that the title doesn’t just refer to the missing girls. Imprisoned in their own anger and pride, these characters are ill-prepared to explore the dark mazes of other people’s motivations, but they try anyway. We go with them.