Try as they might, Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo (who account for roughly half of the ostentatiously prestigious casting choices) can’t quite manage to weep and heave and roil as heavily as the elements do in this arty if ultimately somewhat soggy thriller.
You know it’s going to be a portentous affair from the very first immaculately framed image — a wintry forest through which a grazing buck can be seen. On the soundtrack, Jackman recites the Lord’s Prayer as a hunting rifle creeps into the frame. The prayer ends, the deer is dispatched, the violence at the heart of the natural order is palpable.
Davis, Howard, Jackman and Maria Bello are neighbors who have gathered their families to share Thanksgiving dinner (venison) together. Their respective youngest daughters duck out to go to the other house for a whistle. Time ticks away. They don’t return. Temperatures drop.
The investigation immediately hones in on a mysterious, dingy RV seen prowling through the neighborhood earlier that afternoon. No sooner do police surround the vehicle at a gas station nearby than the driver — an infantile, twitchy man whose oversized glasses scream Level 3 offender, played by Paul Dano — than he tries to off himself by driving into a tree. The cold rains fall.
Jackman in particular is convinced of the man’s guilt, and when the police are unable to hold him any longer for lack of evidence, he decides to take the law into his own hands, entrapping the suspect in an abandoned house and brutalizing him in order to find out where his daughter is. A winter squall moves in.
As it turns out, director Denis Villeneuve’s film is exquisitely timed to coincide with the release of Grand Theft Auto 5, which with it shares the incorporation of torture as a plot point. Though whereas the video game uses it to distance its active first-person audience from both identifying with the characters they’re directly influencing and from making any universal point about how torture is used in mass entertainments, Villeneuve’s movie uses it to force his passive third-person audience to empathize with his characters. Prisoners is a protracted parlor game asking its audience: “How far would you go?” GTA5 instead asks: “How are you actually going this far?” The tone of each dictates the emphasis on audience identification.
Villeneuve’s cast members consistently bring their prestigious A game to the proceedings. Jackman’s rage, in particular, is alarmingly vascular. And Gyllenhaal is able to fill his police detective character’s spare frame out without resorting to cheap sentiment; it’s an impressively lived-in performance. But both they and their plight take a backseat to Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (more famous for his work with the Coen Brothers) invoking the wrath of their elements. Even when the drama tips over the edge, the film remains one of the most visually engaging of the year.
Ultimately, Prisoners is chilly in a few too many ways.