That’s the jumping off point of the exceptional new crime thriller, Prisoners. Early in the film, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family walk to their friends’ home to celebrate Thanksgiving. Keller, his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their hosts, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) have a great time catching up. They eat, they drink, they laugh, and so on, all with their kids running around and playing. After a while, Keller and Grace’s young daughter, Anna, asks her parents if she can run home to get something with Franklin and Nancy’s little girl, Joy. All parents agree, so off the kids go. Alone. The girls don’t return, and the parents’ worst fear is brought to life.
Keller Dover is the kind of guy who is always anxious, always prepared. The kind of guy who keeps his basement organized with copious amounts of food, survival products, weapons, hell, there’s even a fucking gas mask down there. Keller lives in a constant state of paranoia; he’s always ready for it all. Except this. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a young detective with an impressive record, is tasked with finding the girls, but as the hours (and eventual days) slowly tick by, Keller becomes increasingly anxious that no leads are being made.
I’m not revealing anymore, simply because after its first act, Prisoners sets itself up as an elaborate maze, and to reveal some of the steps may allow presumptive readers to figure out too much. Instead of describing how Prisoners is so accomplished, our time will be better spent discussing why.
Director Denis Villeneuve knows how to create an intricately layered web of a film. That’s what he did with his brilliant tale, Incendies, a few years ago. One reason I admire Villeneuve’s direction so much is because he makes room for time. He isn’t concerned with unleashing expository dialogue then cutting to the next scene. He likes to watch his characters. He appreciates the emotional expression of thought, something all too rare in modern American movies.
I’ve seen every film Hugh Jackman has been in, and if he has reached more profound emotional depths than he does as Keller, I’m certainly not aware of the material. We sit anxiously as Keller flirts with the notion of crossing the line. And once it’s crossed, we can’t help but judge his intentions. Is Keller right in his actions? Is it okay for him to deny the law and exact vengeance on his own? It’s that moral conundrum, mixed with Jackman’s intensity, that keeps us engrossed throughout.
In addition to Jackman’s ferociousness, Prisoners acts as a compelling character study of how people handle grief. Some sit in bed, fogged by prescription pills. Others participate in illegal deeds, while others dismiss them. My point is, every single person who graces the screen in this film is at the top of their respective games. Even Paul Dano, who I often have trouble believing as an actor, is disturbingly desperate as an early suspect.
Having noted all that, the real star of this show is Jake Gyllenhaal, who plays Detective Loki as an obsessed, by the book closer unwilling to forget prior indiscretions. Loki’s troubled past fuels his exceptional police work, and it is enthralling to watch his process unfold on screen. Gyllenhaal gives Loki an interesting character quirk, a rapid, nervous blinking that I found wholly believable. He proves that it’s the little things that make a character.
Prisoners is the type of domestic, moderately budgeted crime thriller that is becoming less and less frequent. It’s powerful, engaging, meticulously detailed and exceptionally acted. It is also very, very smart. Too many movies of this kind rely on cheap tricks or washed up clichés to gain marketability. Not Prisoners. It never went where I thought it was going to go. A