One’s appreciation of Prisoners depends on their tolerance, both of the film’s relentlessly bleak outlook and of the holes and leaps lingering just beneath that dreary surface. If one is capable of suspending both disgust and disbelief, Prisoners becomes an intense, masterfully acted suspense-thriller which mentions but never pontificates on numerous larger issues within modern American life.
It’s fitting that the one of the kidnapped girls in Prisoners is named Joy, because there is none to be found on-screen. Beginning with the gray and grim Pennsylvania setting, the film creates an atmosphere that is at once closed from escape yet spacious enough to disappear into. Life in this seemingly peaceful, blue collar town surrounded by trees is reflected through Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) self-reliant opening monologue, while his actions as the film develops more closely resemble the splintered ends his community would rather ignore than repair.
It would be easy for Prisoners to descend into pulpy, exploitative muck, or into cheap revenge porn, but the film remains nicely grounded in strong characters and even stronger performances. Jackman is as intense here as any time in his stint as Wolverine but without the exaggerations inherent to playing an invulnerable superhero. The warmth displayed during family scenes explodes into fury when that family is lost and wear on him until he acts more out of habit and helplessness than anger. Meanwhile Jack Gyllenhaal channels his obsessive Zodiac performance, alternating cool professionalism and passionate desperation. Detective Loki is the type of cop that the thriller genre is built upon yet new and intriguing enough to allow it to endure. Supporting actors like Paul Dano and Terence Howard have some excellent moments but unfortunately Maria Bello becomes wasted talent. There just isn’t enough room for her.
Prisoners presents two very different sides of the same investigation – one analytical and legal, one emotional and not – raising questions on how far parents should go in protecting their children. While some may prefer that Prisoners spend its time making specific arguments for or against the numerous issues it raises, the film itself prefers to stir up those issues over the natural course of an engaging story. At times it can be frustrating to know more than the characters or to figure out their case before they do, but this knowledge builds the film’s pressure so nicely that by the end it feels as though this entire town could collapse with one misplaced breath. [subscribe2]