Prior to getting this major studio gig, Quebec director Denis Villeneuve has established a kind of specialty in making a specific type of film. Both Incendies and Polytechnique were darkly compelling movies that left movie fans conflicted.
You admire them. And you never want to see them again.
Prisoners is centred on a double child abduction, so you can assume correctly that Villeneuve is still attracted to the dark side. Big-name movie stars notwithstanding, he has not gone entirely Hollywood.
Set in a bleak autumnal Pennsylvania (its chilly grey tones captured by ace cinematographer Roger Deakins), the film drops us into the living nightmares of two families. The daughters of Kelly Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) stroll away from the Birch home after a Thanksgiving dinner and seemingly disappear off the face of the earth.
Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a police detective with a nervous twitch and a perfect record for solving crimes, is put on the case. He finds a suspicious RV that was seen parked in the vicinity of the girls' homes. Its driver is even more suspicious, a man-boy named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who crashes his vehicle in a panic upon police approach. His aunt (Melissa Leo) insists the young man has a mental age of 10.
While he is suspicious as hell -- and Dano makes the character maddeningly ambiguous -- there is no evidence to hold him.
Dover, meanwhile, is going slowly mad, first with grief, then rage. He has reason to believe Alex really does know the whereabouts of the two girls. So he launches a surveillance of his own. And when he gets an opportunity to subject Alex to what the American intelligence community refers to as "enhanced interrogation," he does so with grim, scary resolve.
Prisoners is, first and foremost, a crime drama in which Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski slowly ratchet the suspense by making the audience privy to clues the characters do not have the opportunity to put together.
But thematically, it is a movie very much in Villeneuve's wheelhouse. Like Polytechnique, the director's painful recreation of the murders of 14 female students at Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique in 1989, it is about the repercussions of an act of senseless madness, especially in its examination of perceived masculine inadequacy in the face of evil, which here is taken to its self-destructive extremes by Jackman's unhinged dad. Like Incendies, it's a personal story with wider social implications, especially related to the topic of torture. (Any echoes of Abu Ghraib and Guant°namo in the sight of a chained-up Alex wearing a blood-crusted hood are purely intentional.)
Jackman delivers the dramatic goods, but his casting seems unimaginative given that best-known screen persona is the rage-oholic Wolverine. Gyllenhaal offers more subtle shadings: His nervous facial tics are suggestive of the internal battle to control violent impulses in the face of violence.
The running time is apparently Villeneuve's major surrender to Hollywood excess. Its 153 minutes is double that of the spare, tense Polytechnique, and it leaves us feeling not so much surfeited with suspense as just plain exhausted.