There is more than just your standard mystery mechanics at work in the moody new thriller Prisoners. Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have bigger ambitions, loading this grim and elegant film with odd details that hint at bigger themes, suggesting that this is not just a story about two kidnapped little girls, much in the same way that Se7en and The Silence of the Lambs weren't just about serial killers. Unfortunately Prisoners doesn't have quite the same heft as those macabre modern classics. Still, there's something noble in the effort.
Initially the most striking thing about Prisoners is its impeccable design. The story unfolds in some bombed-out mill town in Pennsylvania in late November. The color palette is browns and grays, everything dreary and washed-out in the no man's land between autumn and winter. The movie was filmed in Georgia, but looks convincingly like the blue collar Northeast. Villeneuve's eye for location is keen — the street where the story's two families live feels exactly right, pitched in just the right socioeconomic tone, bland and unspecial enough to feel safe. This everyday setting, humble homes on an unassuming street, immediately makes these characters feel familiar, which is why it's so scary and bruising when things go so horribly wrong. The best cinematographer working today, Roger Deakins, captures this milieu with his usual crispness, basking in all the damp, somber muck without over-articulating it. Jóhann Jóhannsson's score is dark and contemplative but never intrusive, it simply acts as an invisible barrier holding all this chilliness in.
These beautifully realized aesthetics coax strong performances from everyone involved. Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello play Keller and Grace Dover, a couple with a teenage son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and a young daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). On Thanksgiving Day, the family walks down the street to the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who also have a teenager, Eliza (Zoe Borde), and a young daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). While the parents are sipping post-dinner wine in the living room and the teenagers are slumped on the couch in the basement watching TV, the two little ones go missing. It was no one's fault, just a miscommunication about who was watching the girls. What begins as a simple "Huh, where could they be?" search around the block quickly turns into panic. Bello, Howard, and Davis all grieve and tremble well, while Jackman tenses up, eyes going dark, a blistering anger taking root inside of him. I'm not one for all the macho "Give me back my daughter!" yelling stuff that goes on in this movie, but Jackman can certainly sell it with fiery conviction.
A potential suspect is quickly identified — Eliza and Ralph saw their sisters playing on a beaten-up old camper that was parked a few houses down and are pretty sure someone was inside — and the action then shifts to the young, tattooed Detective Loki, played with easy authority by Jake Gyllenhaal, in one his most appealing performances in years. Unlike so many recent detectives in TV and film, Loki isn't laden with a tragic back story, some sin or mistake from the past that he's now determined to atone for. In fact we don't learn much of anything about Loki beyond his dogged commitment to the case. Gyllenhaal expertly plays Loki's cool, street-smart professional demeanor with a hint of anger pulsing under his skin, so when he does finally erupt, with tragic consequences, the moment doesn't feel overblown or unearned.
The case's first arrest is a mentally handicapped young man named Alex (a nearly mute Paul Dano) who spends his days driving around in that old camper, and nights sleeping at the home of his aunt (Melissa Leo), a widow who lives on a picturesquely shabby plot of land, rusted out cars in the yard and all. Alex looks like a creep and certainly seems suspicious, but when the police search his RV they find nothing and are forced to release him, much to the horror and disbelief of Keller and the other parents, who are convinced Alex is the one who took the girls. So, as many angry dads have before him, Keller takes matter into his own hands, kidnapping Alex and holing him up in a run-down apartment building. There Keller gruesomely tortures Alex, but the kid gives up nothing, only stammering cryptically and whimpering for help. Franklin and Nancy are aware of the situation and are horrified by it, but at Nancy's urging they let Keller continue. Grace remains in the dark, bedridden and pill-addled.
So we have two investigations here, Loki chasing down leads and finding mostly dead ends while Keller beats Alex to a pulp and scalds him with hot water. The mystery grows knottier and more sinister — we're ultimately talking about some pretty dark, dark stuff here — and sadly, despite all the assured acting and beautifully textured filmmaking, the movie begins to fall apart. Mysteries are hard enough to satisfyingly solve without all the tacked-on brooding about God and manliness and family duty. But Prisoners tries to do it all at once, and what results is a too-gotcha twist and a villain with an underdeveloped motivation, plus a whole lot of plot holes scattered throughout the picture. In all of their grasping for profundity, it seems that Villeneuve and Guzikowski didn't pay close enough attention to the central story.
But Prisoners is still a solid fall entertainment. It's not the deep and affecting meditation on the human condition that it clearly aspires to be, but it's still an admirably thoughtful, grownup film that never panders to its subject or its audience. (One good test in these kinds of movies is to see if the kids are annoying and showbiz-y. Here they aren't. A good sign.) It would have been nice to see more from Howard and Davis, but Gyllenhaal simmers terrifically, commanding our focus and acting as a nice counterbalance to all of Jackman's histrionics. Smart, scary, and gorgeously rendered (the final shot is a stunner), Prisoners didn't keep me in its spell for too long afterwards, but in the moment proved perfectly captivating.