When two young girls go missing and the police release the main suspect, one of the girls father (Jackman) butts head with the young officer in charge of the investigation (Gyllenhaal), before taking extreme measures to rescue them himself.
Having earned an Oscar nomination for his last film, Incendies, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve crosses the border for his English-language debut, Prisoners, a very American crime mystery. Villeneuve’s never been the cheeriest of filmmakers, so his portrait of US suburbia squats beneath dirty-white skies, draped in a thin snow that you know will never make for good angels.
The subject matter is inherently stark, concerning the mysterious disappearance of two girls. But this isn’t a straight investigation — when are they ever? — as the cops arrest the likely abductor just a few scenes later: a greasy-haired creep with a Michael Jackson voice and “the IQ of a ten-year-old” played by Paul Dano. So it can’t be him, right? Too obvious? The father of one of the girls, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), would disagree, and being a good, Christian, American survivalist, with gas masks and bags of lime in the basement, takes matters into his own hands. On his release due to lack of evidence, Dano’s Alex Jones is abducted and incarcerated in Dover’s DIY torture dungeon until he gives up the girls’ location. Meanwhile, the investigation continues by loner cop Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).
Prisoners is a smartly structured, solidly performed thriller, executing intertwining races against time — to save both the girls, and prove Alex’s innocence or guilt — within the same psychological labyrinth. And the political undercurrent is not hard to detect: Dover is the America that invaded Iraq, believing his grief-fuelled quest for justice places him beyond morality and the law.
Back on the surface, there are all the expected turns and twists, and anyone familiar with the genre will sniff out one particularly plump red herring. Also, it is a shame the film resorts to the cliché of a character spotting a vital clue after throwing all their files to the floor in frustration. But Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) keep you engaged while they keep you guessing, never allowing either the tension, or the grimness, to relent.
A decent, cogent, greyly atmospheric thriller with something to say about War-On-Terror America.