The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.
Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.
Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).
Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.
Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.
As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.
Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.
Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.
The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.
It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.