Child abduction. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare, and it’s in the news on a depressingly regular basis. In Prisoners, Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a father searching for his missing daughter, and as each harrowing day passes, he brings the audience in closer to what it must be like to experience the unimaginable: the inchoate anger, the frustration with a seemingly inept police investigation, the shutting down of his own fear in front of his terrified wife (Maria Bello), and finally, the soul-wracking anguish of having failed to safeguard the family he promised to protect. Keller’s range of reactions are deployed with such believable ferocity by Jackman that it’s a shame the script isn’t better, though its puzzle-like construction keeps the tension mounting without a moment’s slackening.
After Thanksgiving dinner, the Dovers’ little girl, along with the daughter of their good friends the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis), disappear while walking between the two homes. They are last seen near a recreational vehicle parked on their street. The RV belongs to Alex (Paul Dano), an apparently handicapped young man who has the mentality of a 10-year-old, and who lives with his smothering aunt (Melissa Leo). But there is no physical evidence, or anything else linking him to the abduction, and so Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can only offer lame assurances when Alex is released.
Keller, a brawny, intimidating man, takes charge of the situation, scaring Alex into an enigmatic whisper that may, or may not be, a clue. Keller operates heavily on instinct, but so does Loki, who believes Alex is innocent just as fervently as Keller believes him to be guilty. How did Alex get a driver’s license, asks Keller, if he can barely write his own name? There are other red flags going up at the police station, some of them due to an inadequate budget, but also a few that diminish the credibility of the investigation (even more so for the audience). That the police cannot be counted on increases the Dovers’ desperation.
Red flags at half-mast aside, the plot thickens with grisly realism. Shots of Loki crawling into basements, knocking on strange doors, and prowling backyards are edge-of-your-seat creepy. Meanwhile, Keller resorts to torture in his attempts to locate the girls before time runs out, with Howard’s father forced into complicity by his helplessness. The supporting cast adds immeasurably to the proceedings, making the (borderline-gratuitous) torture sequences seem unavoidable, maybe even justified, while the lurking horror that Alex may indeed be innocent drives Keller to greater extremes. Though Loki is the loner, it’s Keller who seems terribly alone.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film, Incendies, was a foreign-film Oscar nominee) is impressively assured with pacing and mood, and offers up compelling hints of character, with the pervading atmosphere of dread heightened by cinematography (by Roger Deakins) that brings out every ominous nuance in the comfortably suburban setting. Only the barest facts necessary are revealed about Loki, who has personal experience with child molestation, and whose penchant for intuition over action puts him in time-wasting conflict with Keller. It also leads to a serious flaw in Prisoners’ gripping momentum, but even so, the film’s religious undertow and moral quandaries build to a disturbingly superior crime drama.