The lone-wolf, the vigilante, the solitary ranger; he’s older than the movies. Older, even, than America itself. We know the story; an everyman pressed, through horrific circumstance, into acts he deplores but is, nevertheless, entirely capable of. Justice is going to get served, vengeance waits for no one. The bad guys are going to get got, whatever the price.
Director Denis Villeneuve’s entrance into the American mainstream is an attempt to hold this folkloric archetype to account. With a fraught Fincher-esque milieu and atmospherics inspired by Roger Deakins’ cinematography, we meet Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover, a smalltown suburban family man, owner of a white picket home, a pickup and a struggling business. He’s a devout Christian versed in the myths of sin and redemption, and a devoted father, picking up his six-year-old daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and carrying her on his shoulders, helping his teenage son shoot a deer through its heart. But he’s also pressed in with fear. He avoids booze. He carefully tends to a basement that could see his family through an apocalypse. He extorts his boy to rely on himself because – if that storm comes – society will crumble, and they will be left on their own.
An apocalypse does come. On a rainy thanksgiving with local friends (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), Keller laughs as Anna and her companion Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) cavort around. Then the two girls leave the home to play in the street, and don’t return.
An old camper van is seen outside, and the police are called. Enter an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Inspector Loki (you read that right), who quickly finds the RV and arrests Paul Dano’s Alex Jones, a weird mute wearing bifocals and a baggy rain mac. Gyllenhaal interrogates him, but can find no evidence. So he is released.
Not many people know Hugh is short for Humourless, yet he brings a barely-contained ferocity to the role. Haunted by what might be happening to his daughter, he’s desperate to turn the impotence he feels into something tangible. So he follows Dano’s Alex, becomes convinced he is guilty of the abduction, kidnaps and hides him, beats him to a pulp, asking again and again where the girls are. But for cries and pain and pleas for help, Alex remains steadfastly silent.
If he’s innocent, then Keller is torturing a man with nothing to tell. But if Alex took his daughter, knows where she is, and is still somehow withholding, then Keller is the prisoner.
Prisoners asks us how much faith we can place in the warped, fraught circus that seems to spring up whenever a child disappears. It compels us to ask whether Keller’s heinous acts are understandable, whether any parent would do the same. The film has been compared to a localised, familial version of Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty in the way it questions, thematically and contextually, the old testament bedfellows of morality and suffering, of whether the end justifies the means.
But it’s also scared of the answers. Prisoners is well versed in the tropes of the psychological police procedural thrillers, but even as it morphs and re-morphs around the genre, it still falls back on the tried and tested. By turning a blue collar hero into an unstoppable monster, Villeneuve seems to want to say something about the real costs of revenge cinema. But then he turns his head, letting the film slowly detach itself from the realism he so carefully fostered, relying ever more heavily on furtive coincidence, letting its credibility stretch and twist and finally fall away.
Villeneuve almost made us confront whether torture can be a worthy cause, but he copped out. He almost broke free, but we’re still prisoners to convention.
Follow Tom on Twitter: @TomSeymour