Silver Screen: Prisoners ****
There’s much more artistry to Prisoners than its pulpy premise suggests. A father searching for his kidnapped daughter resorts to a vigilante investigation when he believes the police are on the wrong track: Could be fodder for a toned-down action movie starring the Rock or a perilous gauntlet of martyrdom for Mel Gibson, or just the premise of a TV movie circa 1992. In the hands of screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, however, it’s the spark for a brooding psychological drama with significant moral concerns, albeit one that does occasionally overindulge in an affinity for the lurid.
Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, the aggrieved father, but his bulging Wolverine physique is hidden behind neatly pressed workshirts. He’s an unremarkable small-business owner rendered unhinged by the disappearance of his daughter, who vanishes without a trace while playing outside on Thanksgiving along with the daughter of Keller’s best friend Franklin (Terrence Howard).
Both Keller and Franklin are convinced their girls were kidnapped by Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally challenged young man whose dilapidated RV was parked nearby on a neighboring street. The police are suspicious but find no physical evidence, prompting Keller to follow Jones himself. As the days pass by and the girls’ chances grow slimmer, Keller convinces Franklin to help escalate his unsanctioned and increasingly illegal investigation of Jones. Meanwhile, stoic lead detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) bears the burdens of both sides. He’s haunted by Keller’s accusations, but also worries that the troubled, simpleminded Jones and his adopted caretaker aunt (Melissa Leo) might also be innocent victims of circumstance.
Villeneuve enlists the services of master cinematographer Roger Deakins, a frequent Coen brothers collaborator whose work also includes Skyfall, Wall-E, and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. Deakins is a wizard with muted tones, and here he injects the gloomy, white-gray weather with almost palpable menace, while the nighttime scenes play out as chiaroscuro clashes of light and shadow. The understated beauty pairs well with Villeneuve’s deliberate pacing. This slow-burning approach is essential to maintaining credibility as the plot stealthily moves toward hysteria. Like a frog in a pan of water that doesn’t notice the steadily rising heat, we’re not aware we’re in a potboiler until it’s already boiling away. Though the final act favors the shocking over the cerebral, the movie never loses sight of its moral dimensions. Prisoners earns its strange climax, both the startling revelations and the ambiguities.
Prisoners also earns its running time. At just less than two and a half hours, it doesn’t feel particularly long. That’s just one way it’s similar to Zodiac, another wonderful, moody thriller that featured a similarly strong performance by Gyllenhaal as a man bending under the incredible weight of other people’s crimes. Paul Dano also excels as an especially eerie, inscrutable suspect, a role that stands out even on the Paul Dano Scale of Unlikability. Pity poor Dano, a talented guy whose signature quality is a spidery loathsomeness. This cast is backed up by a strong ensemble that includes Howard and Leo as well as Viola Davis and Maria Bello as the grieving mothers. It’s a pleasant early fall surprise, and after a season of slight comedies and blockbusters, its weightiness feels strangely refreshing.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.