Prisoners is difficult to watch but, try as you might, you cannot look away. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski have molded one of the tensest thrillers of the last several years, one that forces the audience to question what is right and wrong. We watch as Keller struggles to understand the protocol Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) must follow as well as the rights afforded to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the enigmatic young man who is, for a time, Loki’s main – and only – suspect. As Keller’s pain grows and his patience wanes, we see him become more and more desperate not only for justice, but for an answer. This leads Keller down a dark road, pulling with him his reluctant friend and neighbor Franklin (Terrence Howard) whose daughter was taken along with Anna.
Guzikowski’s script is terrific, crafted with the care and attention to detail of an engineer designing a massive skyscraper; no shortcuts and no rushed decisions. While first act could be seen as setting up simply another “Where’s my daughter?” throwaway, it is with deliberate timing and design that it moves forward in a completely unexpected manner. Villeneuve wisely makes no choices that would distract from his screenwriter’s fantastic story. Prisoners would be weakened by flashy cinematography or unnecessary tonal shifts. Villeneuve subtly shifts the weather and the characters’ environment as the movie gets darker and more disturbing, but it is done so gradually as to be practically unnoticeable.
Jackman’s performance is easily the most emotionally raw of his career. Jackman takes what could have been a very shallowly drawn character and gives him depth and dimensions which make his tortuous journey to find his daughter so much more heartrending. Thanks to Jackman’s excellent performance, we feel Keller’s rage and desperation. When he begins treading on morally reprehensible ground, we do not condone his actions, but we certainly would not punish him either. Jackman has proven he can take on big budget blockbusters as well as Broadway musicals, but Prisoners should mark a turning point in his career toward more serious and dramatic work.
Making Jackman look even better is the incredible cast that surrounds him. Gyllenhaal is perfectly cast as Loki, a dedicated law man who is fed up with every bureaucratic decision that’s ever been thrown his way. But, he will not break the law and this puts him very much at odds with Keller. Gyllenhaal gives the same intensity we saw in Zodiac but with an added layer of misanthropy. His famously enormous eyes are dark, tired from years of dealing with incompetent captains and demanding civilians. From his hunch of his shoulders to his twitchy eyes, Loki is exhausted but has not given up.
Dano continues doing very strong work. Alex is practically mute which gives Dano all sorts of challenges, each of which he dominates. As Alex’s worrying and protective Aunt Holly, Melissa Leo is fantastic, but what else is new? She is practically unrecognizable, letting nearly every distinguishing feature fade away. Howard and Viola Davis, who plays Franklin’s wife Nancy, are solid supporting players and in any other movie would deserve much more screen time. But, this is Keller’s story and their roles are well balanced.
Prisoners is not a heart-racing thriller in the classic sense, but it will keep your attention for every minute of its 153-minute runtime. Between the complex script and Jackman’s defining performance, Prisoners is a movie that will stay with you for a very, very long time.