Truly great crime thrillers are few and far between. Now I’m not talking about heist capers like “Ocean’s Eleven” or tales of cops and robbers. I’m talking about crime thrillers that display the fringes and the dark corners of humanity, something in vein of the classic “Seven” or “Silence of the Lambs.” Part of this has to do with a fall back on gimmicks (i.e. the killer with a crazy pattern) or an effort to throw the audience into disturbing areas that end up feeling cheap and exploitative. To accomplish them, they need a certain display of tonal control to properly engage and provoke, which director Dennis Villeneuve showcases a knack for in “Prisoners.”
The setup is every family’s worst nightmare. The youngest daughters from Dover and Birch families want to grab something from the Dover’s house just down the street, and the parents let them go with the teens. But the kids never grabbed their older siblings to watch them, and a few hours go by before the families realize something is wrong. They cannot find them in their frantic search, and the ensuing investigation from Detective Loki doesn’t quell their worst fears one bit.
In the case of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the investigation only makes him more frustrated and eventually dangerous. Keller kidnaps the main suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), after he is released from custody from lack of strong evidence, and this is where “Prisoners” gets really interesting. From this point on, Keller becomes a conflicted anti-hero that’s hard, and then harder, to sympathize with. Because of Jackman’s intensely committed performance, we perfectly understand the pain and determination that drives Keller’s motivations, but our allegiance to him is questioned. Dano has been playing creepy dudes and/or introverts throughout his career, so of course his oddball demeanor paints a target to the audience, but what if Keller is wrong in his convictions?
Loki’s story is much more understated than the fire of Keller’s, though his internal journey is arguably the more compelling one. It’s established early on that he’s solved every case he’s had in the past, so when Gyllenhaal slowly lets out a little more emotion in his performance as the plot trails on, Loki’s frustration is palpably real. These girls may not be his own, but he feels a moral obligation to both the families and himself to see this through to the bitter end, which doesn’t come quickly.
Atypical of many thrillers, Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski let the plot details boil over in a slow simmer rather than breakneck pace. This restrained pacing is fitting for this case as the loss of a child for such a long time can be unbearable to go through, and every hour feels like an eternity. Proportionally, the film takes place over a week but feels like much longer, and it’s a credit to Villeneuve that he lets us feel the length of time without dulling us in the drama. With that said, I could have done with streamlining of the various red herring plot threads, especially since it’s pretty clear which ones aren’t the real kidnappers.
There are also copious amounts of religious symbolism sprinkled throughout, though I couldn’t really surmise a meaningful purpose for them. They feel like clunky window dressing to a story that didn’t really need them. And when “Prisoners” finally reaches it’s closing stretch, the wade through its emotional muck is proven to be worth it with the revelations and final character actions that bring closure. The haunting beauty of Roger Deakins’ visuals in its major climatic drive through night traffic is a perfect example of a film that can engross us even as we see the dark side of humanity.