Thrillers usually are playful, entertaining affairs going back to many Hitchcock pictures through such contemporary thrill rides as the “Mission: Impossible” and James Bond films or even more dramatic films such as “The History of Violence” and “Ransom.”
Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” does fall into the “thriller” category since it’s too melodramatic to be a drama and its mystery-within-a-mystery plotting owes so much to web-weaving detective fiction and police procedurals. Seldom though does a thriller deal with such deeply disturbing, hardcore emotional distress as “Prisoners.”
The title “Prisoners” can be take literally or metaphorically since many of its characters are trapped by cruel circumstances or nature. The film delves with serious intent into such things as child kidnappings, mental illness, torture, alcoholism, suicide, family trauma and sheer terror.
Aaron Guzikowski’s original screenplay is unusually tough stuff for a studio picture so it will be interesting to see how the general public reacts to such a graphic, unsettling experience in the guise of a “thriller.”
You could simply lose the label, of course, but that would deny the carefully calibrated, almost too minutely detailed puzzle the movie sets out to solve. There are enough twists for an old-fashioned Agatha Christie murder mystery. And enough creepiness for any horror flick.
The film is deeply flawed by unnecessary length, repetition, stagnation in several places, implausible behavior and contrivances. Nevertheless its French-Canadian director, who scored an art-house hit with an earlier thriller-mystery, “Incendies” (2011), provokes a white-knuckled, breathless, sinking feeling in his audience during many passages.
It begins almost immediately as black-and-white credits and an opening scene slowly bleed into muted winter colors. A father — we’ll soon learn his name is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and that he’s a survivalist — urges his teenage boy to shoot a deer in the woods not far from their small Pennsylvania town.
The film’s only respite comes next during a Thanksgiving Day visit to nearby neighbors for a traditional feast.
Even here though there is something ominous about the way Villeneuve shoots and edits the sequence, and how the emphasis is on keeping watchful tabs the families’ two small girls — until there’s a momentary lull in that priority as the satisfied glow following a fine dinner settles over everyone.
Perhaps this feeling of dread has something to do with a mysterious, dilapidated RV parked nearby that the girls momentarily play around. A shot from inside tips you off that someone in there may be watching those girls.
Then as feared by alert audience members, the girls go missing after dinner.
As hours go by in a frantic nighttime search in drenching rain and then days go by in tense conflict with police, media and each other, the two families fracture.
The neighbors, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), are no less unnerved but a tad more stable than Keller. This survivalist has seriously violated his mantra of “Be Ready.” He didn’t see this one coming. Yet he blames everyone other than himself.
His wrath especially falls on local ace cop, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who heads the investigation. Loki has swiftly identified and arrested the youthful driver of the RV, Alex Jones (Paul Dano).
But since police find absolutely no evidence to connect Alex to the crime, either in the RV or a home where he lives with his melancholy aunt (Melissa Leo), he gets released in 48 hours.
Which drives Keller into unrepentant fury. At one point he attacks the youth outside the police station. At many others, he looks like he’d like to take a swing at the detective too.
While Loki continues to investigate other leads — there is at least another one that points in a much different direction — Keller does the unimaginable: He abducts Alex and in an empty, shuttered house his family owns interrogates the youth brutally.
Now here is where I find the film overly manipulative. Alex is so mentally disabled as to have the IQ of a small child. As played by Dano, it’s clear Alex would be incapable of carrying out this crime — of abducting two boisterous girls in broad daylight by himself.
Were he less severely retarded the father’s insistence that kidnapping and torture are the only means to find the missing girls might have made some sense. As it is, the brutal actions are morally indefensible, all the more so when he drags Franklin into his horrifying scheme and Franklin reluctantly goes along.
So the film touches on such current topics as enhanced interrogations and the morality/efficacy of such tactics — but only touches on them. Ultimately, this mostly serves the purposes of the advancing puzzling mystery. For that matter, in one key sequence toward the end, Loki himself is guilty of misguided violence against a prisoner.
The movie eventually languishes in a kind of doldrums where Loki keeps turning up at bizarre crime scenes or stares at a computer screen containing newspaper stories about long-ago crimes, while Keller, later joined by Franklin, continues the torture interrogation of Alex with, understandably, no results as the lad is driven senseless by his pain and suffering.
It might give away too much to go into more detail about other manipulative or implausible elements. But the film, for all its brilliance in inducing rising tension and gut-wrenching family conflicts, leaves one queasy.
Too many characters go unhinged. Along with this there are enough incidents of mental illness within a few square miles in this small town as to constitute what is medically known as a “cluster.” While not completely implausible, this has all been contrived in service to a thriller/mystery.
On the other hand, Villeneuve and Guzikowski dig deep into their characters to reveal levels of credible conflict, deep-rooted neuroses and afflictions. The film never indulges in easy caricatures but rather forces you to continually modify your opinions about these people and their beliefs.
While the film often gets seen through the eyes of Gyllenhaal’s cop, Jackman’s panicky Keller is the true protagonist and not an easy one on an audience. Deeply flawed and swift to anger, he nevertheless is a compelling and empathetic character.
Ultimately it’s hard to get a read on Loki but there’s no doubt about his dedication and determination to solve this case.
That marvelous actress Maria Bello in the role of Keller’s wife has many poignant, heart-rending moments that make you understand his misguided motives in taking the law into his own hands.
The script, however, almost abandons the Birch family. While on screen more than enough and played by two of Hollywood’s best actors, a similar insight into their motives, mores and decision-making is never offered. Frankly, they have little to do as the story wears on.
The damp and chilly atmosphere of the Pennsylvania community comes off with perfection thanks to the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins abetted by the editing of Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, editors on many of Clint Eastwood’s films.
Patrice Vermette’s production design for the characters’ houses speaks volumes about each one of them.
So there’s no denying the effectiveness of this thriller despite its 153-minute length. It moves relentlessly into darker, increasingly mordant territory with each new twist. It reaches back over the decades to disclose hidden secrets and bitter truths about this community and its troubled denizens.
The film will stay with you long after its final images —whether you want it to or not.
Opens September 20, 2013 (Warner Bros.)
Production: Alcon Entertainment presents an 8:38 Productions/Madhouse Entertainment production
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski
Producers: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner
Executive producers: Edward L. McDonnell, John H. Starke, Robyn Meisinger, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson
Director of photography: Roger A. Deakins
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Music: Johann Johannsson
Costume designer: Renee April
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
R rating, 153 minutes