Director: Denis Villeneuve
Gathered for a Thanksgiving dinner, two families allow their young daughters out to play. A few hours later they realise that neither girl has returned. Realising quickly that the children were being watched by someone in a campervan, the two fathers (Jackman and Howard) become convinced that whoever was driving the vehicle took their daughters. The van is traced by the police and the driver (Dano) arrested, yet the girls are nowhere to be found, the young man they have in custody has the mental age of a ten year-old and the police believe him without capacity to kidnap and conceal the girls. The boy is released, but the parents are so convinced of his guilt that they kidnap and begin to torture him. While a zealous policeman (Gyllenhaal) follows other leads, the parents’ have to deal with their own consciences as it becomes more and more doubtful whether the boy was even involved.
So used to the Hollywood ideal of morality are we that it almost comes as a shock when it’s revealed how far the parents are willing to go. In a moment almost as disturbing as the physical violence, Davies speaks to Dano for the first time. A mother, she shows tenderness and kindness towards him, appalled by the results of his beatings, but she does not intervene; her feelings do not extend into compassion and she says to her husband of Jackman “We let him do what he has to do, we’ll not intervene. If he dies, he dies.” As the film continues we are forced to ask ourselves what we would do if we found ourselves in a similar situation, but then the narrative skews and we’re forced to ask another question; are the parents just as immoral as whoever took their children?
The overwhelming urgency of the hunt for the children is the heartbeat that drives Prisoners’ extended running time. Its pace is slow at points, but its pay-off definitely satisfying. The film is dark, its characters deeply flawed and their actions almost reprehensible; have no doubt, this is a very adult movie and for those seeking the comfort of a popcorn thriller, this is not that film. However, this is a sturdy and exciting piece of striking filmmaking and I would thoroughly recommend it. For me, as a twenty-something without a family, the destruction of these two families was hard enough to watch, but I think for anyone with children of their own, Prisoners would be a far more affecting piece. Its dark subject matter will probably bar its contention in next year’s Oscars, but Jackman and Gyllenhaal may pop up in surprise nominations. And expect great things to come from Villeneuve; with this his first mainstream English-language film, I can only imagine what could come from this very strong Canadian director.