Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Viola Davis. Rated 14A. Now playing
“Pray for the best; prepare for the worst.” This is advice uttered in the movie Prisoners, and although we usually forgo that recommendation in favour of useless weeping, there are insta-indicators in this film that some sort of “worst” will happen. One is the grim, unrelenting rain à la Se7en, and the other is the mere presence of reliably creepy actor Paul Dano, wearing a variation on Mark David Chapman glasses. “Be ready.” (That’s more Prisoners advice.) Right-o, but we can’t look away.
In a Pennsylvania town, the two young daughters of neighbour couples Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello), and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), disappear. Suspicion falls on a nearby RV and its occupant, Alex (Dano)—a man with a child-sized IQ and a Christianity-inclined aunt (Melissa Leo). Minus any evidence, Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads down other trails. Hunter-carpenter (bad combination) Keller kidnaps Alex for some Abu Ghraib–style torture time.
Prisoners is the Hollywood coming-out party of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), who knows something of labyrinthine mysteries, disturbing violence, and membrane pain. Besides that rain, we feel some ol’ David Fincher influence on Villeneuve in the growing sense of dread—although it’s more slow-build, riveting quiet than sick, ominous Fincher thrumming. There are shades of Fincher’s Zodiac—Gyllenhaal, who played another sort of detective there, actually sports zodiac knuckle tats here—and of Mystic River. And there are some utterly creepy, utterly frightening moments.
There is also a big basket o’ tricks, from additional suspects to mazes to snakes to Christian iconography (in one scene, a Virgin Mary statue scared the shit out of us). And things just graze genre wackness. But Villeneuve extracts impressively grounded performances from Gyllenhaal, as twitchy-eyed loner Loki, and Jackman, who high-wires it through grief, guilt, and man’s innate capacity for wetwork.
In the end, we are all guilt-wracked humans. (No? Well, you should be.) And we are all prisoners of our guilt. Some of us just haven’t tried on the orange jumpsuits yet.