Despite what could easily have been a bloated two-and-a-half-hour runtime, Prisoners is a thoroughly captivating dramatic roller coaster ride, thanks in large part to its paradoxically economical yet richly complex mystery. Every scene, even minor ones featuring apparent red herrings and plot cul-de-sacs–a missing red whistle, a crude sketch of a maze with no discernible exit, a seemingly unrelated murder investigation–resonates with deeper significance, often leading to legitimately surprising (and, thankfully, narratively organic) payoffs much later in the story.
This spare, stylish presentation arises naturally from the movie’s deceptively simple setup: on a frigid, rainy Thanksgiving evening, two little girls vanish without a trace. Brilliant but world-weary Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal doing career best work, communicating his character’s compelling, troubled background almost entirely through subtle gestures) quickly apprehends the prime suspect, a soft-spoken, mentally handicapped young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano, adding yet another quirky performance to his resume). When the police become convinced of Alex’s innocence due to lack of evidence and move on, however, the father of one of the missing children (Hugh Jackman, personifying raw paternal instinct and the righteous fury of a pious man pushed too far) takes it upon himself to rescue his daughter by any means necessary–including kidnapping, intimidation, and cold-blooded torture.
The result is a hypnotic, morally-complex study of human behavior. We recognize that the father’s motivations are pure, stemming from his admirable desire to protect the people he cherishes the most, but his justification for his actions (“He stopped being a person the moment he kidnapped our daughters”) is truly chilling. Likewise, we empathize with Detective Loki even when plays an antagonistic role in Jackman’s character arc: although Gyllenhaal’s choices make it clear that Loki becomes too emotionally invested in his cases, he is still a professional trying to do his job, and a distraught father is a distraction at best, a potentially dangerous threat at worst. Even as writer Aaron Guzikowski and director Denis Villeneuve pit these two men against each other, they make sure that the audience understands them both, and as our perception of the truth constantly shifts (such as when we witness Alex opportunistically abusing his aunt’s pet dog), so do our allegiances.
This delicate balance between lean, graceful storytelling (right down to the pure, luscious imagery, exquisitely photographed by Skyfall cinematographer Roger Deakins) and intelligent meditation on the nature of crime, sin, and ethics, Prisoners easily stands alongside The Place Beyond the Pines as one of the year’s finest films (out of those released so far, anyway).
[Originally written September 20, 2013.]