In 1997 Atom Egoyan made his masterpiece “The Sweet Hereafter,” one of the best films of the decade. The haunting adaptation of Russell Banks’s novel dealt with the aftermath of a school bus crash in which several children died, as well as the impact of their loss on a small town. Now another Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, whose previous film “Incendies” treated a different sort of explosive domestic situation, takes up a similar theme in “Prisoners,” about the kidnapping of two young girls and their parents’ response, and delivers an equally gripping and powerful piece. It joins films like “Mystic River” and “Gone Baby Gone” as touchstone works about such tragedies.
Like “Incendies,” “Prisoners”—with a script by Aaron Guzikowski, whose feeble, ill-structured screenplay for “Contraband” would never have suggested he was capable of writing of this quality—is structured as a mystery. It follows Pennsylvania small-town Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) as he seeks to track down whoever snatched the victims on a rainy Thanksgiving Day. And as a police procedural it dots its “I”s and crosses its “T”s. The plot flows smoothly as Loki stumbles and presses on to the truth, which like most such yarns might stretch credulity down the home stretch but never shatters it, and ties things together in the end. It even takes time to pull together loose ends you might fear would go unresolved.
But while the whodunit portion of the picture is hardly unimportant, it’s elevated by concern for the emotional ramifications the crime has for the two families involved. The parents of little Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons) are Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who are understandably devastated by their daughter’s disappearance, as is their older daughter Zoe (Eliza Soul). But their torment is less volcanic than that suffered by Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) over the loss of their daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). Their family—including son Ralph (Dylan Minnette)—practically implodes under the strain. Grace becomes a virtual basket case as the hours drag into days, and Ralph—who’s being pressured by his father to “man up”—is in a daze. But it’s Keller, a survivalist whose primary purpose in life is to protect his family, goes ballistic. He seethes with righteous anger and determination to save Anna, and his explosive temper is always on the very edge.
That’s evident when the police take a prime suspect into custody—Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a gangly youth who’s hauled in driving a dilapidated RV that was seen parked in the neighborhood where the girls were snatched. The problem is that Loki isn’t able to extract a confession from this mentally undeveloped young man with the capacity of a ten-year old who lives with an aged aunt (Melissa Leo); and since there’s no physical evidence in the RV, the police are forced to release him, infuriating Keller, who’s certain of his guilt and takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping Alex, chaining him up in an abandoned building and torturing him to make him reveal the girls’ whereabouts. He also enlists Franklin in the scheme, and eventually Nancy as well. Meanwhile Loki is tracking down other suspects—an alcoholic priest with a record (Len Cariou) and a strange young man (David Dastmalchian) who’s prowling about the neighborhood—but can’t close the case.
All of which is essentially revealed in the trailers, and this précis will go no further to avoid spoilers. Suffice it to say that as the plot darkens, the focus is increasingly on Keller, whose willingness to resort to ever more extreme measures escalates along with his frustration. The final outcome doesn’t rival “Se7en,” for example, in despair, but while it offers a measure of hope it also shows how far any parent might go in response to the loss of a child.
Throughout Villeneuve’s touch is unerring; working in tandem with master cinematographer Roger Deakins and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, he creates a brooding atmosphere in shades of gray and blue while allowing the story—and characters—room to breathe, even while pulling off some tension-filled sequences, like a terrifying car chase through a crowded freeway during a nighttime sleet shower. And he secures extraordinary performances. One has come to expect remarkable turns from Leo and Dano, and they don’t disappoint. Howard and Davis are also their usual reliable selves, capturing their characters’ sorrow with depth but not exaggeration. Bello also delivers Grace’s sense of grief strongly, and Minnette skillfully conveys a youngster’s pain and confusion. But the real revelations are Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Both have done good work in the past, but here they go beyond that, with Jackman brilliantly conveying a truly frightening degree of volatility and Gyllenhaal the twitchy, bruised egotism of the determined cop.
It’s the time of year when studios release films with an eye to awards season, and “Prisoners”—a terrific thriller, shattering domestic drama and probing character study in a single package—is certainly one that cries out for consideration. It certainly proves that “Incendies” was no fluke, and that Hollywood can still make films for grownups.