At once aesthetically hypnotic, yet painfully eternal, "Prisoners" is a somber, satisfying exploration of the divide between helplessness and action in the face of uncertain fates.
It depicts the dreadful breakdown of two families when a young girl from each is kidnapped, as well as the struggle of a detective to solve the case within the bounds of the legal system while appeasing the desperate desires of the families.
It's also a venue for outstanding performances, featuring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead roles, supported by an equally impressive group of actors.
Hugh Jackman, left, is a father who believes a tight-lipped suspect played by Paul Dano has kidnapped his daughter in “Prisoners.”
Jackman plays Keller Dover, a tormented father who takes the law into his own hands when the police, specifically the scapegoat Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), fail to quickly find his kidnapped daughter. Dover's actions challenge what is moral, tempting the audience to condemn him or cheer him on. That Jackman is able to elicit both responses from moviegoers simultaneously is no surprise.
In one scene, he threatens to torture an exonerated suspect by placing his hand on top of a sink with the intent to smash it in with a hammer.
When Dover's arm comes down and averts the suspect's hand without sparing the sink, his subsequent swings obliterating it entirely, the moment is all the more trembling because Director Denis Villeneuve is almost nonexistent, allowing Jackman to be the sole inducing force of our sympathies and censures.
But when Villeneuve is building tangible atmosphere and climactic suspense, "Prisoners" is at its best, even if getting to the last act is something of a trudge. And though its slow middle section hinders the movie from greatness, it at least serves multiple layers of character development.
Villeneuve often frames his characters behind obscured thresholds, as if the audience is on the outside looking in on them, suggesting the prison-like confines of their ethical and emotional predicaments. Each character is held captive by something - a religious code, a justice system, unhealthy coping methods, or the assumed role of the patriarch.
It's a visual and thematic style that is wholly defined by point of view and the climatic environment, how oppressive downpours and the darkness of the woods during extensive searches for the missing girls cloud the characters' immediate purviews, and thus their inevitable long-term fates. Uncertainty abounds in "Prisoners," and each character deals with it differently.
It is an unremittingly serious movie, grave and unsettling, but not at the cost of entertainment.
After all, this is a mystery-thriller, complete with the requisite tropes. When the portrait of a family's collapse moves aside for the thrills of intricate plotting, detective work and red herrings, the film is as satisfying as some of the best in the genre, reminiscent of "Zodiac" and "Mystic River."
Thus, "Prisoners" wants to be two movies at once, and even succeeds on some levels. That the two genres don't always work in tandem with each other is a natural consequence of huge creative ambitions, brought to life by great performances and a clear artistic vision, resulting in an occasionally uneven, but altogether captivating piece of cinema.