There’s a grim, gripping momentum to “Prisoners,” starting from its very first moments. The film opens with a long, slow shot of an empty, snowy woods. A deer steps out from behind a tree, and the camera begins to pull back, slowly but surely revealing two hunters — a father and a son — rifles ready, poised to shoot.
“Prisoners” is a movie driven by the hunt, the urge to kill, and by the protective instinct binding parents to their children. It is a dark and unrelenting film — part procedural thriller, part psychological torture chamber. It’s also one of the most riveting and memorable films of the year.
The father in the opening scene is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a blue-collar construction contractor whose daughter, along with another young girl, goes missing — presumed kidnapped from their middle class neighborhood. The prime suspect is a young, mentally disabled man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was seen watching the girls in an RV just before they disappeared.
But the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), can’t get the dysfunctional Jones to talk. Jones goes free. The search for the missing girls goes on, but with little hope. So Dover takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Jones, and, with the help of the other girl’s father (Terrence Howard), begins a lengthy and horrific process of torture, determined to find out something, anything that would lead him to his daughter and the other missing girl.
While Dover brutalizes Jones, Detective Loki continues the search. He turns up an array of clues, but struggles to make connections.
The bulk of the movie is split between these two stories — the small-town cop on the trail of two kidnapped children, and the broken father determined to do anything, no matter how ugly, to find out where his daughter has gone.
Loki’s investigation is a more or less traditional detective mystery, with a traditional answer in the waiting. Dover’s half of the story, on the other hand, is posed as a sort of moral mystery: Is his violent vigilance justified? There are hints that Jones knows more than he’s said, but Dover’s brutality is based on instinct and desperation as much as evidence. And it’s clear that part of what Dover is doing is exacting a kind of angry revenge on a person he believes played a role in the disappearance of his child.
The screenplay, by Aaron Guzikowski, is chilly and realistic, with a conclusion that offers a bleak, haunting symmetry. As a mystery, and a crime story, it’s expertly crafted and broadly satisfying, despite an unnecessary ambiguity in the final moments. As a moral dilemma, it’s intriguing, but less successful. Dover’s torture sequences are emotionally charged, but occasionally threaten to enter exploitation territory.
Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian filmmaker who directed the Oscar-nominated (best foreign film) “Incendies” (2010), makes a remarkably confident Hollywood debut, letting the story unfold with a solemn and slowly building intensity. He’s in full and complete control at every moment; at no point during its two and a half hours does the movie drag.
“Prisoners” is not a perfect movie, but it’s a very good one — an unnerving thriller that kept me captivated through every minute.
CREDITS: Directed by Denis Villeneuve, screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski
RATING: R for violence, language