The same controlled aesthetic and suffocating sense of dread that characterised Denis Villeneuve’s Oscar nominated Incendies is equally present in the French Canadian’s first English-language feature, a bleak, arresting child abduction thriller shaded with cynical social commentary. Scripted by Aaron Guzikowski (who’s only other writing credit, on the mediocre Mark Wahlberg vehicle Contraband, belies the quality of this more recent venture), Prisoners unfolds with the sickening tension of a great police procedural, all while poking at America’s social and political hypocrisies.
At the centre of the film is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman; The Wolverine), a god-fearing middle-American whose dutiful sense of familial preservation pushes him beyond the moral pale after his daughter disappears along with a neighbour’s. Convinced that the police aren’t doing enough to find the girls, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands, kidnapping their lead suspect, Alex Jones (an admittedly paedophilic looking, RV driving Paul Dano; Looper) in the hopes of making him talk.
It’s interesting that Villeneuve, a three-time winner of Canada’s Genie Award for Best Director, chose Prisoners as his American debut. You’d be hard pressed to deny that the themes of Guzikowski’s script, although perhaps not uniquely American, are certainly at the forefront of the country’s present-day national consciousness. The film opens with Dover reciting the Lord’s Prayer while teaching his teenage son how to hunt. His basement filled with supplies for when society inevitably crumbles, he’s a man who will do anything to protect what’s his.
Juxtaposed against Dover is Franklin Birch (Terrance Howard; Iron Man), the father of the other missing girl. The bespectacled, intellectual Democrat to Dover’s bearded, gun-toting Republican, Birch is appalled by Dover’s brutalisation of Jones, but can’t bring himself to intervene lest it help save his daughters life. One wonders what those who so decried Zero Dark Thirty will make of Prisoners, an allegorical, yet in some ways far more political take on America’s use of “enhanced interogation.”
More similar to Dover, in spite of their antagonism, is the cop charged with bringing the girls back home. His professional mask disrupted by nervous twitches, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal; End of Watch) is weary of Dover, perhaps because he recognises the same capacity for violence in himself. Both Dover and Loki are driven by a set of unflinching personal principles, laid on a foundation of traditional, instinctual maleness (the latter instinct absent in the more moderate, civilised Birch). Unconsciously, both men need to save the girls, because that is what a man is meant to do.
Neither Jackman nor Gyllenhaal have been more compelling, in recent memory, if ever. Writing as someone whose politics are decidedly to the left, I found it impossible to condone Dover’s actions on any philosophical level. Yet Jackman is such a maelstrom of impotent fury and anguish that he demands your empathy, moral trepidation or no. Loki is something of an archetype; a loner, volatile gumshoe with a tendency to play by his own rules. But, like his co-star, Gyllenhaal humanises a potentially alienating character, and offers a protagonist who, particularly in light of Dover’s arc, is far, far easier to root for.
Outside of his two leads, Villeneuves greatest asset is cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose frequent, award winning collaborations on the visually striking films of Sam Mendes (Skyfall) and The Coen Brothers (True Grit) make him a natural fit for the Canadian’s own mesmeric style. The grey, foreboding landscape of Georgia (masquerading for the film’s Pennsylvania setting) matches the slow, gliding, purposeful movement of the camera. Frequently Villeneuve linger on shots through windows and windshields, putting viewers in the uncomfortable position of the voyeur. Like the non-American director, we are outsiders peering in.
Prisoners does falter somewhat in its final act with a series of implausible plot-twists. It’s disappointing, not because these eleventh hour developments require suspension of disbelief (although they do), but rather because the script is unwilling to follow through on its theretofore stomach-churning realism. The depressing truth is, most real world child abduction cases don’t end quite so neatly.