The big problem I have with most violent movies is not the violence itself but the failure to show the consequences of that violence. Whatever else might be wrong with it, this charge certainly cannot be leveled at “Prisoners,” which is all about the consequences of violence.
On an overcast Thanksgiving in rural Pennsylvania, two neighboring families are having a cozy get-together. Among them are Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a carpenter with a strong survivalist streak; his wife, Grace (Maria Bello); and their 6-year-old daughter, Anna; they are being hosted by Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) and their 7-year-old daughter, Joy.
At dessert time both girls, who had been playing outside, are suddenly nowhere to be found. The panic-stricken parents reach out to the local police, headed by lead investigator Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The only clue: a mysterious camper that had been parked nearby where the girls were playing.
Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski set the stage for a whodunit, but their ambitions are higher. The doomy dread, shot in lustrous monochrome by Roger Deakins, coupled with the film’s Christian fundamentalist undercurrents, speak to something more implacable – a free-floating unease that won’t necessarily be dispelled when the mystery is solved (if it ever is).
On a purely technical level, and in terms of what he accomplishes with the actors, Villeneuve (a Canadian who was acclaimed for the Oscar-nominated “Incendies”) does a lot of things right. He keeps the tension level high without turning everything into “CSI: The Boonies.” But the patchy, red herring-strewn script is at war with the sophisticated visuals and performances.
The screenplay also fragments the dramatic point of view, so that at times we are viewing the action from Loki’s perspective, other times Keller’s, and so on. The idea, I suppose, is to present a multifaceted perspective on the horror, but the effect is often needlessly wrenching (and negligent: the Birches are relegated to also-rans). Loki’s story, at least to me, is the most compelling, and that’s because, unlike Keller’s, very little is spelled out for us. Gyllenhaal gives a stealthy, emotionally complicated performance unlike any he’s ever before attempted (including in “Zodiac”). As in the best noirish detective tradition, we can see that Loki’s success as an investigator is largely due to his intimate psychological connection with the criminal mind.
But the crux of the film’s philosophical seriousness, such as it is, lies with Keller. Distrusting the police, as precious hours tick by, he corrals the chief suspect, a half-witted boy (Paul Dano) who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo), and takes matters into his own hands. The film asks the question: How far would you go to protect a loved one?
The torture scenes in “Prisoners” reminded me of nothing so much as “Zero Dark Thirty,” and that’s probably not entirely accidental. By taking torture out of the political realm and into the family homestead, Villeneuve wants us to know that there are no havens anymore. The crazies are everywhere.
The film’s attempt to set up a pastoral refuge only to despoil it is fairly rudimentary stuff. Who really believes that crazies only congregate in the cities? Villeneuve takes the film’s title all too literally: He wants to demonstrate how everybody is held captive by their own demons. Keller is only the most flagrant example.
Too flagrant. From the beginning, he’s set up as an extreme take-charge type who is girding his family for an oncoming apocalypse. In “In the Bedroom,” a much superior film about a decent, law-abiding man who takes revenge on his son’s killer, the horror was in seeing how a good man could be twisted into a savagery beyond his own comprehension. In “Prisoners,” Keller doesn’t have that far to travel from the man we first see to the man he becomes. He’s the centerpiece of a film that, for all its pretensions and intermittent power, is essentially high-grade claptrap. Grade: B- (Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.)