The plot of Denis Villeneuve’s crime thriller “Prisoners” sounds like something we’ve seen before, and aren’t too anxious to see again: kidnapped children, a stymied police investigation, a desperate father bent on revenge and unafraid to take matters into his own (soon bloodstained) hands. But approach this film as a popcorn movie at your peril: “Prisoners” is a dark, deeply serious examination of how loss can unhinge us; it grabs onto you, and you may have trouble shaking it away.
Filmed with a formidable chill by the great cinematographer Roger Deakins (rain never looked so cold and miserable), “Prisoners” unfolds over a few late-November days in a modest Pennsylvania suburb. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) join their neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) for a cheery Thanksgiving dinner that comes to an abrupt end when the families learn that their little daughters, who wandered out to play, have vanished. Police are called, with Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) as lead investigator for the case, and suspicion quickly falls on a strange young man named Alex (Paul Dano) who had been seen in the neighborhood. Hours and days tick away, and all Loki can offer is “we’re considering all possibilities.” That’s not enough for Keller, who’s sure Alex knows more than he’s saying — and decides to try to make him say it.
What’s fascinating about “Prisoners” is how nothing is black and white; this vigilante father isn’t necessarily a hero, and Jackman doesn’t play him as one, but as a complex, frightened man (listen for a faint stutter) driven by forces he can’t control. Mad with grief and frustration and not knowing if his child is alive or dead, he lashes out, with unthinkable violence. “Have you lost your mind?” the horrified Birches ask. “Do you have a better idea?” is the reply.
The acting ensemble here is first-rate. Gyllenhaal plays a taciturn cop with secrets of his own — and, deep inside, his own rage. Bello, with few scenes, heartbreakingly shows us a broken woman trying to fill in emptiness with medication; Davis, likewise underused, conveys both quiet goodness and overwhelming despair. (In one of many poignant details, we see Nancy in her kitchen days after her daughter has vanished; the half-eaten Thanksgiving dishes still sit on the table, untouched.) Dano, speaking in a voice that seems to come from some other place entirely, haunts us — is he, or is he not, a villain? Keller’s sure, but we’re not. “Prisoners,” like “Mystic River” (which it resembles, in mood and effect), takes us to some terribly dark places, and doesn’t let us quickly return to the light.
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Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or firstname.lastname@example.org