As a new parent, my interest in stories of kidnapping and child abduction has suspiciously dwindled, and yet the stellar reviews for Denis Villeneuve’s recent film Prisoners compelled me to watch it. In it, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a survivalist father whose daughter goes missing along with her best friend. A suspicious camper is seen in the nearby area, and when the police attempt to question the driver, he behaves erratically and tries to flee. The suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is arrested, questioned, and his camper and home are combed over by a forensic crew. No evidence is discovered, and the police deem Jones to be mentally incapable of taking the children without a leaving a trace, so he is released. This incenses Dover, who believes the children are still out there, waiting to be rescued. When it’s clear that the lead detective, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, has moved on to other leads, Dover decides to take the matter into his own hands. He kidnaps Jones, holes him up in an abandoned building, and proceeds to torture the suspect in hopes that it will lead to the whereabouts of the girls.
Despite the bleak premise, Prisoners ends up sticking with you for all the right reasons. The film dares you to question how far you would go to rescue your own endangered child. At once you want Dover to push through the barriers created by a plodding police investigation, yet his vigilantism clearly veers out of control. We’ve seen Jones behave villainously, but by the time Dover has beaten him to an unrecognizable pulp, it’s hard not to feel reluctant sympathy. On top of this, Villeneuve does a great job getting the viewer to wonder whether or not Jones is guilty; in one great sequence, Dover believes he hears Jones say something incriminating under his breath that no one else around them catches, and smartly, the audio is too muffled to allow the audience to hear it either.
Prisoners succeeds in no small part because of its actors: Hugh Jackman gives a performance that in less-crowded years might have been considered for a Best Actor Academy Award nomination; Paul Dano is reliably creepy; Melissa Leo continues her streak of stellar turns; and Jake Gyllenhall brings the right level of world-weariness to the lead detective who seems to be hindered by an overwhelming bleakness that has beaten him down over the years.
When I first saw a preview for Prisoners I was put off by what seemed to be a very by-the-numbers revenge mystery. Thankfully, the film turned out to be so much more, and as I settle into this pre-Oscars period of assembling my favorite films of the past year, it’s looking more and more like this movie I cannot shake is going to make my top ten.