One overcast Thanksgiving Day in a Pennsylvania exurb, two little girls are abducted off a quiet neighborhood street in Prisoners, the exquisitely calibrated new thriller from French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who, after the art-house success of his last film, Incendies (2010), an Oscar nominee for best foreign-language film, now moves into the English-speaking mainstream. Happily, he has not checked art at the door.
The movie’s stark themes—innocence and evil, faith and distrust, might and right—are set up in the opening sequence. A young deer ventures alone through a wintry forest, while in voice-over Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) intones the Lord’s Prayer; as the camera slowly pulls back, we see Dover teaching his teenage son to hunt. Driving back home with meat for the table, Dover explains that the most important thing he learned as a boy was to “be ready.” It’s a survivalist’s mantra: that with adequate foresight and stockpiles one can surmount any disaster that’s unleashed by nature or man.
Dover is already stressed by the bad economy; his construction business is slow and he’s barely meeting mortgage payments on his family’s home, a more modest house than that of their Thanksgiving hosts, the Birch family. After his six-year-old daughter goes missing along with the Birches’ youngest daughter, Dover panics. His distrust of government authority kicks in as he butts heads with Loki, the dogged police detective assigned to the case (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The cops target several persons of interest, including a pedophile priest (please note that hereafter in this review there are plot spoilers). But after the first suspect they detain for 48 hours—the traumatized Alex (Paul Dano), who lives in seclusion with his elderly aunt (Melissa Leo)—is released for lack of forensic evidence, Dover takes the law in his own hands. He kidnaps and pummels Alex, tying him up and hooding him in a way that calls to mind one infamous photo from Guantanamo. His follow-up is a DIY lesson in torture, building a cell that’s as obscene an inversion of the confessional as one can get.
Alex isn’t the only one who’s sleep-deprived; Dover can’t rest, and his grieving wife, Grace (Maria Bello), is so reliant on sedatives that she misses another suspect when he crosses her path. Only the Birches (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) are able to keep a grip, but they’re iffy at best, given their collusion with Dover.
The script by Aaron Guzikowski is airtight and packed with clues. He elaborates and circles back on them, until the entire case is much like the maze that one suspect obsessively draws. There are also suggestive details, like what looks to be a Masonic signet ring on Loki’s left pinky; who could be better at unearthing secrets than a Freemason, sworn to keep secrets of his own? The film is rich in such allusions and atmosphere. Veteran cinematographer Roger A. Deakins shot with a digital camera, maximizing dynamic tonal range by incorporating available light sources (flashlights, candles, holiday decorations, and other fixtures). The resulting imagery is claustrophobic and muted, making Prisoners a particularly dark night of the soul.
As Dover pushes ahead to recover the kidnapped children, his faith in his abilities as a protector, as well as in a Divine Protector, is repeatedly tested. “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” he says. In the end, his paranoia seems at least partially justified. The bastards are out there, all right, and you often don’t have far to go to find them. But first, look within.