TORONTO – I think it’s safe to say that “Prisoners” is the best police procedural since “Se7en,” and it works as a grim, ugly companion piece to that film in the way it is meticulously plotted without ever truly telegraphing its intentions. The difference is that “Prisoners” also focuses on the way grief drives us mad in the long haul, and just how fragile parents are when it comes to the notion of anything happening to their children.
I’ve certainly seen a number of films that cover similar thematic ground to “Prisoners,” but Aaron Guzikowski’s script takes its time, laying out its various tricks and traps very carefully, so that when it decides to hurt you emotionally, it does so with maximum efficiency. The film begins with a Thanksgiving celebration shared by two families. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their kids down the street to share the day with Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis). Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Eliza (Zoe Borde) are the teenagers in the families, and they also both have little girls, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
One of the things that makes the set-up to “Prisoners” so effective is how simple it is, how non-eventful and normal every decision is that leads to the gut-wrenching moment when both families realize that the little girls have disappeared. No one does anything wrong. They’re just two families, hanging out, enjoying the holiday, relaxing, and by the time they realize what’s happened, they are already too late to do anything about it. The police become involved, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to their case. He’s a twitchy, sunken-eyed guy with an exemplary performance record, and Gyllenhaal is a fascinating study in details here. They don’t explain much about him, but there are all of these small, strange clues about his past. He’s got tattoos on his knuckles, and at one point, he makes reference to a childhood full of abuse and worse.
Almost immediately, there is a suspect. There was a beat-up old camper in their neighborhood that day, and it is quickly traced to one Alex Jones (Paul Dano). When police spot the camper and try to approach it, he rams it into some trees trying to escape. Loki pulls him out and tunes him up a bit to try to get him to admit he had something to do with the girls, but Alex is quickly revealed to be a slightly retarded man-child, barely competent to be out in public by himself.
To explain anything else about the plot beyond that point would be criminal. The film continues to lay new pieces out for consideration all the way up to the moment the closing credits roll, and I really enjoyed not knowing how things would come together. It seems rare these days to see a film like this that can actually keep me on edge all the way through. Terrence Howard does some very interesting work in the film, especially as Jackman’s character starts to sink into a darkness he may not be able to shake, and Viola Davis also has a few great stand-out moments. Bello does a good job of playing a mother in complete full-system shock, but that sidelines her for much of the film as a result. Honestly, the film belongs to Jackman and Gyllenhaal, who both play men who are driven by demons, darker than they initially appear, willing to do whatever it takes to resolve this unthinkable situation. It might be Jackman’s best overall performance, and it allows him to play anger and rage in a way that is completely different than what we’ve seen from him as Wolverine. This is far more primal, and far scarier. Dano has the market cornered on soft-faced weirdos, and I like how the film refuses to make it easy to figure him out as a character here. There’s one moment that comes about a half-hour after he’s been introduced that is so despicable, so off-handedly awful, that it would seem to immediately snap the plot into focus, but don’t be fooled so easily. No one in “Prisoners” is what they initially appear to be.
Denis Villeneuve made the strong “Incendies” a few years back, another film in which people reveal their natures to the surprise of those closest to them, and I can see why someone would read “Prisoners” and offer it to him. He attacks Guzikowski’s script like a starving man handed a cheeseburger, and he ladles on the style, finding beauty even in the worst things the film shows. It helps that he’s got Roger Deakins shooting the film, and I think it’s hauntingly lovely in places.
The film’s a little precious in terms of pace, and there’s a lot of ground covered in the more than two-and-a-half hours, some of which could have been condensed or even trimmed. And If there’s a weak link in the movie in terms of performance, it’s Melissa Leo, but part of that is what she’s given to do. At least two of her scenes exist solely to dump information on the audience, and it’s an inelegant note in an otherwise very strong script. Still, the cumulative power of what the film says and how it says it had me physically anxious for much of the second half, and I felt like I wanted to get up and yell during the film’s closing stretch. It is masterfully built where it matters, and despite the film’s 2:40 minute running time, I suspect this is going to be a film that manages that rare one-two commercial and critical punch, and should lead to a lot more work from both Guzikowski and Villenueve. “Prisoners” pulls no punches, and it wants to leave a mark on you, and it is a testament to all involved that it manages to accomplish those things so well.
“Prisoners” opens in the US on September 20, 2013.