A terrifying sense of isolation pervades the characters in this gripping story about the kidnapping of two young girls from their middle-class suburban neighborhood. Screenwriter Aaron Guziknowski (Contraband) has crafted a script as relentless as it is brutal in examining the lives of the Dover and Birch families, close friends whose pre-school daughters slip away from the dinner table on Thanksgiving Day to play near a decrepit camper parked in front of a nearby vacant house in their hilly Pennsylvania suburb.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrance Howard) believe the now-missing camper holds the key to the girls disappearance and when it’s located later that evening by world-weary Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the driver turns out to be a mentally challenged young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who lives with his widowed aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). But Loki quickly determines that Alex’s limited mental capacities make him a highly unlikely suspect.
Keller however, believes otherwise; he insists that Alex’s wide-eyed confusion masks crucial knowledge about the girls’ disappearance. With Franklin’s reluctant help, he kidnaps Alex, imprisoning the terrified young man in the abandoned home of Keller’s deceased grandfather. Convinced that he can intimidate his captive, Keller begins an interrogation which quickly evolves from verbal abuse to physical beating and ultimately to forms of outright torture which grow physically revolting in the days that follow.
As Loki doggedly pursues other leads, he unearths a possible connection to a series of long-unsolved disappearances perhaps connected to a mysterious young man whose stealthy behavior suggests a direct connection to the case. When Keller’s increasingly erratic behavior arouses Loki’s suspicions, the stage is set for the film’s bleak, nerve-shattering ending.
The members of Prisoners highly-talented cast deliver uniformly fine performances, but Jackman and Gyllenhaal provide work representing career highs for both actors. As the morally rigid survivalist who insists his family’s safety is his sole responsibility, Jackman’s Keller becomes a study in obsession that justifies the most frightening means in pursuit of a laudable end. Gyllenhaal’s Loki on the other hand, his face a panorama of nervous tics as unexplained as his numerous tattoos, offers a study in devotion to duty that descends into precisely the same type of senseless violence of which Keller’s been guilty.
French Canadian director Denis Villenueve and Cinematographer Roger Deakins, (whose 71 films include movies as disparate as No Country For Old Men & The Big Lebowski) bathe these sinister events in swathes of hazy twilight, pouring rain and a pitch blackness as oppressive as it is emotionally disturbing. Make no mistake about it; this grim exercise in existential nihilism drains the audience as effectively as pulling the plug of a bathtub. Consequently, Prisoners doesn’t take any-making this visually brilliant study of alienation & obsession a movie only the most hardened (or jaded) will enjoy.
The Verdict? Atmospheric, mesmerizing and so brilliantly repelling you’ll need a strong cinematic stomach to sit through its 2&1/2 hour length.
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