Can a superbly crafted film overcome audience resistance to an extremely painful subject? That is a question that Warner Bros. will be pondering nervously as “Prisoners” moves from its festival circuit to a wide national release. The film deals with the abduction of two young children and the havoc that this trauma creates on the families and the detective investigating the crime. While the subject has been in the news recently, giving the film undeniable timeliness, there’s a difference between following a disturbing news story and paying to see a similar drama unfold at the theater. In addition, the film doesn’t flinch from graphic moments of violence and terror.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve makes his Hollywood debut with this film. His previous film, the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film “Incendies,” did attract an audience, even though it dealt with rape, incest and religious hatred. Still, that was essentially an art house success that may not be a relevant point of comparison for a wider, major studio release. Viewers who see this new film will find it absolutely riveting, and this is a tribute to the filmmaker’s skill and to the excellent cast that brings the story to life.
The film begins as a man encourages his son to hunt and kill a deer. The father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a carpenter who seems to be one of those survivalists who clings to guns and religion, but our view of him as a right-wing nutcase is modified when we see that he and his family choose to spend Thanksgiving with a black family in the neighborhood. (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis who are amazing.) The friendship of these two families is surprising but handled naturally. As everyone relaxes during the course of a long afternoon, their two young daughters go outside and never return. A suspicious looking van was spotted outside, and the parents begin to fear the worst as they contact the police, and a search for the two girls builds in intensity. The police arrest the driver of the van, Alex, who turns out to be mentally impaired, but they have insufficient evidence to keep him in custody. Frustrated, Keller decides to abduct Alex and interrogate him brutally, convinced that this is the only way to save the two girls while the clock is ticking.
As Keller’s interrogations continues in scenes that are gruesome but never exploitative, the film frequently cuts away to follow the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is pursuing his own investigation that includes questioning Alex’s lonely aunt, whose troubled family history may have led her nephew astray. As the film weaves all the plot and character strands together, the vise tightens. There are some truly scary scenes as new suspects appear and the film twists its way to a dark mordant conclusion.
The performances also enrich the film. Jackman gives what may be the most intense and satisfying performance of his career. As the film progresses, we learn that Keller is a far more complex and tormented character than his first appearance as macho hunter suggested. A recovering alcoholic and less than perfect husband, he seems to be acting out these vigilante fantasies as a way of compensating for a deep-seated sense of inadequacy. Jackman illuminates the character’s conflicted nature without ever begging for sympathy. Gyllenhaal is also playing a troubled character, a suspicious loner who nonetheless has a strong desire to help people in need, and he wins our sympathy for this dogged detective without in any way idealizing the character.
As the plot twists multiply and tension mounts, the film reaches a climax that is satisfying without being predictable. Special praise should go to the sound engineer for a shrewd touch in the very last scene that brings the story to an absolutely perfect conclusion. “Prisoners”can at times be a hard film to watch, but thanks to all the talent involved, it’s even harder to shake off.