The screenplay for “Prisoners” is a perfectly serviceable crime-thriller. Written by Aaron Guzikowski (whose only other credit is the inoffensive Mark Wahlberg smuggler movie “Contraband”) it has all the requisite twists and turns and is free of any glaring plot holes. No harm, no foul.
Nine times out of 10 this script becomes a totally fine, totally forgettable movie that you stumble across one night on cable and then think to yourself when it’s over, “Hmm, that wasn’t that bad.”
But for some reason, “Prisoners” found its way into the hands of a talented director who filled out the cast with impeccable talent and elevated this movie to heights it really has no business reaching.
This is the first studio movie for French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose previous film “Incendies” was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film) and he certainly makes the most of it.
The movie centers on the abduction of two little girls from their unassuming, suburban neighborhood. The girls’ parents Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Franklin (Terrance Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) are understandably distraught and horrified.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays lead detective Loki (yea, I don’t know either) who is assigned to the case and applies all of the grizzled determination you would want from a cop in a situation like this.
The investigation quickly focuses in on a creepy old RV that was parked in the neighborhood that belongs to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally and emotionally stunted young man who lives alone with his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo).
There is no physical evidence to link Alex to the girls’ disappearance so the police are forced to let him go. Keller, however, is convinced Alex knows where the girls are and he goes to extreme and morally problematic lengths to try to get information out of Alex.
Typically in movies of this ilk, the abducted girls would be little more than a McGuffin (a movie term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe an object that exists in a film only to drive the plot). In “Prisoners” Villeneuve lets the profound emotional impact of two children ripped away from their families seep in and permeate every fiber of this film.
The weather is perpetually dreary while the characters are regularly being pounded by rain, and this movie is long (although it doesn’t necessarily seem that way) as you feel the weight of time as each passing day pushes the girls further and further away from their families.
In most cases, the thrills and chills in this movie would be played to the hilt, but Villeneuve soft pedals them here as he is much more interested in seeing how his different characters react to their awful predicament as opposed to shocking the audience with surprise endings or ghoulish scares.
Villeneuve also sprinkles in religious overtones and complex dilemmas that make this feel more like a morality play than a Hollywood thriller.
This is a dynamite cast and you can see each actor responding to the other, which pushes everyone to greater and greater heights. Jackman is as good here as he has ever been as he grapples not only with the loss of his daughter but the terrible decisions he makes as he frantically tries to find her.
Gyllenhall makes a great foil as his weary, by-the-books pursuit of justice buts up against Jackman’s desperate-times-call-for-desperate-measures approach.
But more than anything this impressive cast means that not a single scene gets phoned in or wasted. When you’ve got powerhouse performers like Davis and Leo as your fifth and sixth lead then you are playing with a remarkably deep bench.
I suspect that when Guzikowski finished writing “Prisoners” he never would have let himself believe in his wildest dreams that his run-of-the-mill screenplay would have gotten such a nuanced, all-star treatment. All screenwriters should be so lucky.
“Prisoners” is rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.