A grim exploration of the virulence of evil, Prisoners is an exceedingly unpleasant viewing experience. I’m not even sure you could say the movie is necessary. Yet it’s not exploitative – and for a story that turns on the abduction of two little girls, that’s saying something.
Taut and effective as it is in terms of a thriller – and I lost a good chunk of one fingernail over it – Prisoners isn’t primarily interested in turning the screws on us. The movie honestly (and a bit too obviously) wants to show how one heinous act creates not only victims, but more monsters – often monsters who were once victims themselves. At the film’s center is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a rough-love father with survivalist tendencies (his basement is stocked for the worst). When his daughter and her friend are abducted, he goes berserk, to the point of kidnapping an initial suspect (Paul Dano) after he is released by police and torturing him for information.
Jackman rages convincingly; even better is Jake Gyllenhaal as the jumpy detective assigned to the case. True, Gyllenhaal overdoes his character’s blinking tic, yet in a way the incessantness of this affectation heightens the jittery paranoia that is the movie’s prevailing mood.
Much of this mood is the work of director Denis Villeneuve, who lets bleak weather and an imperceptibly moving camera create most of the tension. If some of this is diffused in the final act, it’s mostly the fault of Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay, which piles on one twist too many and serves up a somewhat cartoonish villain. It doesn’t quite work, partly because Prisoners is at its best when it implies that there is something of a villain lurking in us all.