In what was the worst possible movie for me to watch on my young kids' first week at a new school -- I was already wracked by separation anxiety and guilt -- Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's riveting Prisoners follows a frantic father as he searches for the man who has kidnapped his little girl and her friend. (I mean, really.)
As the father, a never-better Hugh Jackman is all tension and explosive violence, a man who has always been in control (he is a survivalist, uncommonly prepared for disaster) but now finds himself robbed of any power. Desperate to regain something of an upper hand, he kidnaps the most likely suspect (who has been released by the police after no evidence could be found) and takes the investigation into his own hands. At home, his wife (a wasted Maria Bello, whose character is regrettably confined to grief-stricken, agency-free bed-rest) is completely unaware of his secret scheme, his savage and Abu Ghraib-esque torture of a man most likely to be the bad guy. But the supposed bad guy is, maddeningly, a simple-minded man who won't speak a word. He just suffers.
As the detective assigned to the case, Jake Gyllenhaal gives his best performance to date. Tough, cold and remote, he comes across as being at once inured to the horror of the case and inwardly rocked by its implications. As Villeneuve's inventive camera follows him through the rain and snow, and as the case unravels to reveal ever unlikelier clues, Gyllenhaal keeps us grounded, keeps the audience from recognizing the preposterousness of the plot, and prevents the political allegory sneaking around the contours of the narrative from becoming oppressive.
Because the plot here really is preposterous. Behind every corner there is some other new revelation, some connection to what appears ever more to be a (somehow as-yet undiscovered) child-abduction ring. And yet, is Prisoners any more preposterous than Silence of the Lambs (the obvious reference point here, along with, well, all of David Fincher's films)?
In both Prisoners and Lambs we have a serial killer on the run, a ticking clock counting down to death, and a detective who may be getting too close to the case to maintain objectivity. But, whereas in Lambs the only one who might help solve the riddle is prone to koan-like bursts of helpful intelligence (Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lecter), here he has been replaced by a virtually silent man (Paul Dano) with the IQ of a ten-year-old. Whereas the former meant a series of increasingly complex conversations between subject and interlocutor, here we are left with a series of increasingly brutal applications of torture on a possibly innocent man.
(It's probably clear from the way I phrased that that I am partial to the talking approach over, say, the smashing-a-guy-with-a-hammer approach, entertainment-wise.)
My discomfort with the brutality, however, takes a backseat to my overall belief that this film, Villeneuve's first in English, demonstrates a stirring talent on the rise. Leaving aside the rather special performances from the leads, what stands out most in this picture is the visual experience. The tension, the anxiety, and even the damp cool of the late November air are delivered to us through a heap of well-chosen images, daring shot construction, and carefully-managed set design. Even when the film takes a few too many turns in the last act, we stay with it -- Villeneuve has brought us there, and has done enough to keep us stuck to our seats. Even if you may see the final twist coming an hour or even two away, if you're anything like me you'll have found it impossible to leave.
Even though all you'll want to do is run home and hug your kids. And never, ever, let them go.
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