Gripping, disturbing thriller
The new psychological thriller “Prisoners” bolts into the theaters as if to say, “Enough with the summer fluff, here is a serious, adult-themed movie that will shake you to the bone.” And it does exactly that, making it one of the best films of the year so far. (Although it is not for the squeamish.)
In one of his finest performances to date, Hugh Jackman is Keller, a blue collar carpenter with a survivalist bent who lives with his wife (Maria Bello), their six-year-old daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) and teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette). After a stormy Thanksgiving Day dinner with friends Franklin (Terrance Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) and their seven-year-old daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), someone notices the young girls who had been playing together outside have vanished. Concern turns to horror as it becomes clear the girls have been abducted – the primary suspect being the driver of a van (Paul Dano) who looks creepy and turns out to have the cognitive ability of a child.
Officer in charge Loki (an excellent, fidgety Jake Gylllenhaal) begins his investigation but can’t charge anyone, which provokes Keller’s easily ignited ire and leads him to take matters into his own hands. “Prisoners” is less a revenge trope (a la “Taken”) than it is a visceral crime drama exploring the lengths to which someone will go to see justice served. Keller’s actions might have seemed exploitative if the script weren’t so expertly written and Jackman’s performance so authentic. While the film is about child endangerment, it is not overtly graphic, the exception being a scene made all the more shocking because of who is doing what to whom.
French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski set a gripping background with the excellent cast, and by carefully releasing clues that aren’t manipulative (“Everything matters,” remarks Loki). They mount the dread with precision and unpredictability. The somber tone here recalls “The Silence of the Lambs” and “Seven,” films that have inspired “Prisoners.”
The run time is a little long, and the story somewhat convoluted. But “Prisoners” deserves credit for artfully presenting its nightmarish moral dilemmas with little pretense or grandstanding. It is both absorbing and exhausting in equal measure.
Rated “R” for disturbing, violent content including torture, and language throughout.