Although it ultimately lacks the courage of its twisted convictions, Prisoners is a provocative thriller about a father who takes justice into his own hands when his young daughter is abducted at Thanksgiving.
The subsequent quest for answers and reconciliation, regardless of the horrific consequences, will strike a deep chord with parents.
Denis Villeneuve’s beautifully crafted picture plays out its nightmarish scenario without any sense of urgency.
Desperate times call for desperate measures and, when authorities fail to solve the case, Aaron Guzikowski’s script pulls no punches as it depicts the father’s transformation from doting family man to snarling judge, jury and executioner.
Explosions of violence are graphic, justifying the film’s 15 certificate. When characters suffer, they do so in sickening close-up.
The film begins with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) hunting with his teenage son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette).
They return home with a slain deer and the entire Dover clan, including wife Grace (Maria Bello) and daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), heads over to the home of their neighbours, Franklin (Terence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), for Thanksgiving lunch.
Soon after, Anna and the Birch’s girl, Eliza (Zoe Soul), disappear to look for a missing whistle and never return.
The two sets of parents are distraught and Ralph remembers a suspicious RV parked down the road. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and police arrest the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has the mental age of a 10-year-old.
Without any evidence to link Alex to the crime, police are forced to let their prime suspect go back into the care of his mother, Holly (Melissa Leo).
So Keller kidnaps Alex at gunpoint and holds the young man hostage.
“We hurt him until he talks or [the girls] are going to die,” Keller tells Franklin.
Prisoners is technically deft and director Villeneuve composes some stunning images with cinematographer Roger Deakins, bleached of colour and hope.
Guzikowski’s script pushes Keller to the edge of the abyss then curiously leaves him standing there for the final hour, throwing in numerous plot twists and another suspects (David Dastmalchian) to delay the father’s fall from grace.
Jackman is mesmerising as a father willing to ignore his moral compass to reunite his fractured family.
Gyllenhaal invests his rebellious cop with an array of twitches and ticks that hint at rage bubbling beneath the surface while Dano is both pathetic and creepy as a man-child, whose innocence remains shrouded in doubt until the tricksy closing frames.
The excessive running time might put off some audiences, but patience is rewarded with fine performances and a slick final act that ties up most of the loose threads.