3SR: Taut, suspenseful, supremely crafted thriller with a gooey, wish-fullfillment core, Prisoners is grim-but-good entertainment.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
Drama, mystery, thriller. 2hr 33mins. R16 for violence, offensive language and content that may disturb.
It’s an uncomfortable coincidence that haunting abduction tale, Prisoners, by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, should arrive in our cinemas the same week the news has been dominated by the real life disappearance of Madeleine McCann.
In comparison to that horror, the film, about the disappearance of two young girls in suburban Pennsylvania, feels like some kind of soporific, a wish fulfillment fantasy of abduction, where, unlike the endless, hamstrung uncertainty faced by the McCanns, the parents of missing children can hope to find them if they have enough faith in themselves.
Kellor Dover (Huge Jackman) does just that when his daughter and her friend disappear and the lead suspect, mentally handicapped Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is released due to lack of evidence.
In a desperate and gruesome bid to make him confess their location, Dover kidnaps and tortures Jones.
But as detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes closer to the truth of what happened to the girls, Dover must face the reality of what he’s done and who Jones is.
With twists as turns coming thick and fast in the second half of the film, it’s the first half of Prisoners that feels most authentic.
The relentless dread felt by the missing girls’ families, the frustration and anger of the police, the creeping patheticness of the suspects is heart-wrenchingly familiar and as engrossing as any documentary on the CI channel.
But Prisoners has more depth than your average episode of Special Victims Unit.
The bleak setting – an autumnally barren Pennsylvania – and gritty characters are marked by religious symbols and driven by their convictions, making for a chilling, suspenseful thriller with a dominant theme of faith.
Self-sufficient survivalist Dover dispenses Apocalyptic wisdom to his son; his ute has a cross hanging from the mirror, a Christian fish symbol on it’s bumper and a radio tuned to the local evangelical channel.
Detective Loki – looking at times more like an inmate than a cop – shares his name with a pagan God and has pagan symbols tattooed on his skin – Greek elements on his knuckles and a compass sun-burst on his neck.
They’re men of faith, faith in themselves first and foremost, but also in a higher power which ordains them to do whatever they have to do – Loki within the law and Kellor under the aegis of his own sense of justice.
Jones – played by a magnificently creepy and Oscar nod worthy Paul Dano – is the monster at the heart of a horrible labyrinth, an insult to God who is also worthy of our deepest sympathy.
It’s the perseverance of Dover and Loki, however, that defeats monsters and leads them to make sense of what in the real world is all too often devoid of sense – there was no trail of clues to Josef Fritzl or Ariel Castro’s basements.
That’s what makes an escapist fantasy like Prisoners so satisfying, it lets us believe for a few hours that real monsters can be beaten by strong men with good hearts who believe in something.