Prisoners Jake Gyllenhaal

It’s become an article of faith that cinema today has reason to feel bitterly envious of its smarter, more sophisticated relative, television. How can that clumsy throwback, the movie, hope to rival the fleet-footed elegance of long-form TV drama, which enjoys the leisure to develop complexity, subtlety, and multistranded intrigue over weeks or months?

There’s little doubt that the best new TV shows have set a steep challenge to the self-contained two-hour fiction film. But it’s not out of the question that even something as generic as a mystery thriller should contrive to work into the traditional movie time-frame the same kind of narrative suppleness that usually demands series length. Running at a relatively generous 153 minutes, Prisoners is so compelling and so alluringly involved that you almost expect a “Previously on…” sequence to hit the screen an hour in.  

Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski, Prisoners is an exceedingly downbeat nail-biter set in a small Pennsylvania town in winter. A slow setup leads into the sudden disappearance of two small girls, daughters of neighboring families spending Thanksgiving together. The parents of one girl are Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello); Keller is a hard-nosed survivalist who prides himself on being able to protect his family from anything, and who realizes with horror that he can’t. The others are Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), established as easygoing, warmhearted liberals—and the film takes its harshest twist when it shows what even the well-meaning middle class (you know: nice, everyday people like us) will do when normality collapses.

Paul Dano Prisoners

Suspicion falls on Alex (Paul Dano), a young man with mental difficulties who isn’t about to provide answers in a hurry. The police let him go, but Keller isn’t satisfied, and takes Alex hostage, torturing him to squeeze out a confession. That’s something we might expect of a self-consciously rugged paterfamilias like Keller, but it’s part of the film’s intelligent casting that we don’t expect it of Hugh Jackman: after all, that’s Wolverine beating the living daylights out of a defenseless youth. It’s when those mild neighbors are drawn into the abuse that the film really turns its screw. The extreme effects of extremity on ordinary people—our own capacity to become monsters—is the film’s central theme. That’s where Prisoners most strikingly matches up to the first series of the Danish show The Killing, in which (whatever the twists of the whodunit) what we really cared about, painfully so, was the fracturing worldview of the victim’s parents.

Prisoners is on more mundanely generic ground when getting down to detective work, but it handles this strand with bracing oddness. Jake Gyllenhaal’s unsettling Detective Loki is less a character in the conventional sense than a principle: tenacity incarnate. He has no backstory or private life, but seems to walk in desperate isolation, as if independent of the police force, sniffing down leads like a depressive terrier. We see nothing of him off the job except at the start, briefly bantering in a Chinese restaurant. The minute we learn he’s a cop, that’s all he is.

Gyllenhaal plays him very strangely indeed. With his lacquered hair and heavy brows, body packed restrictively tight into a shirt buttoned to the top, the scowling Loki seems a rough-etched cartoon; his twitching eye I can only imagine is a tribute to the memory of Joe Columbo. It’s not the only strange performance in the film—Dano’s is easily as mannered, at least at first—yet such oddities give Prisoners an expressionist quality that lifts it persuasively out of the bounds of the everyday. After all, if these people are all prisoners one way or another (of their rages and obsessions, of the past—even in Loki’s case, of his own shirt), it makes sense for them to be walking around resembling long-term residents of hell.

Prisoners Jake Gyllenhaal Hugh Jackman

The small-town setting is indeed earthly hell, a hermetic environment with depressively bleak weather, in which events don’t seem to have any real effect on anyone except the people they directly happen to. There may be a candlelit vigil for the missing children, but otherwise we never sense their disappearance affecting the community in any realistically tangible way. Horror stories (of which there are many in this locale) seem to simply turn into newsprint, then into the files Loki doggedly scans, then somehow to be absorbed into the community’s bloodstream. Even the mother of a long-vanished boy shrugs ruefully, as if abduction is ultimately the natural order of things: “No one took them,” she says of the girls. “Nothing happened. They’re just gone.” 

Prisoners—sometimes awkwardly, for the most part persuasively—does a delicate balancing act between outright nightmare and naturalism. In the latter register, Maria Bello scores magnificently in a scene of meltdown, as Grace berates her husband for promises of stability he could never deliver. In its wilder key, Prisoners sometimes overplays the Gothic. There’s a nice moment when a suspect’s cellar opens up into a gaping maw of darkness. Things get more baroque later: a suspect likes drawing mazes on his walls, and they seem to be devouring his house like mildew. When writhing snakes make their appearance, Prisoners seems to have become a florid symbolist essay on the nature of evil. But come the climactic confrontation—the best bearding-the-demon-in-its-lair scenes since The Silence of the Lambs—the film has won back its credit. (Only to lose a few points for winking at its own cleverness in the open-ended coda.)

Guzikowski and Villeneuve spin their various narrative and thematic plates with elegance, just as a good TV series can, and just as films should also have the freedom to do. As a multistrand story, showing how individuals react to crisis in the bell jar of a single locale, Prisoners holds up nicely against recent series such as Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake and the daringly fragmented British four-parter Southcliffe, written by Tony Grisoni and directed by Sean Durkin.

Prisoners Jake Gyllenhaal

What holds Prisoners together, despite its abrupt shifts of tone, is the mood created by Villeneuve and DP Roger Deakins. Villeneuve has an uneven CV (he’s bang on in his sober 2009 school-massacre drama Polytechnique, self-consciously earnest in 2010’s Incendies), but he’s also a versatile visual stylist. In Prisoners he overplays the ominousness at first (a slow camera creep on a tree trunk feels gratuitous and knowing), but as the film establishes its moribund universe, there are some superbly unsettling touches: the camera loitering idly in a moldering corridor as Keller threatens Alex; the latter’s mouth picked out in the darkness of his cell, like the disembodied mouth in Beckett’s Not I. Isolation and claustrophobia dominate: ceilings hang low, interiors are as chilly as the landscape outside.

The themes can feel plastered too explicitly on the narrative surface: this is very manifestly a what-would-you-do? movie. And it’s hard not to read Prisoners as a parable of political violence, about what happens when societies are prepared to identify and attack their supposed enemies without trial. By and large, the film elaborates these themes intelligently and unsettlingly, but as you get caught up in its ever more involved drift, what ultimately distinguishes Prisoners is simply its richly morbid fascination. It proves just how much a mainstream movie can still work into its finite running time. If Guzikowski can muster a similar density in his forthcoming Sundance Channel series The Red Road, he’s onto a good thing.