“Be ready,” Keller Dover tells his son. It’s the first line of dialogue in Prisoners. The movie doesn’t immediately make clear that Keller is something of a survivalist, stocking his basement with supplies as an extension of that readiness. It’s not commented upon directly until late in the movie, well after something has happened that Keller was not at all ready to experience: his young daughter, along with the daughter of his neighbor Franklin (Terrence Howard), has disappeared.
The two girls go missing on Thanksgiving, when their families gather at Franklin’s house for a meal. Prisoners digs into its Pennsylvania setting with quiet efficiency: a series of fixed shots capture bits of dialogue as family and friends poke in and out of the frame. The introductions to Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello), Franklin’s wife Nancy (Viola Davis), and their various children are swift but offhand, avoiding bald exposition. Though the pace isn’t cranked up, the girls disappear well before the first half-hour of the movie is up, and still has two hours of digging further into a situation that seems increasingly, ominously hopeless.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the case, and quickly picks up a clear suspect: Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a young, confused-looking man with the supposed mental capacity of a prepubescent. His aunt (Melissa Leo) looks after him, and Loki can’t find any evidence. Keller, though, is convinced a guilty man is going free, and feels forced to take matters into his own hands.
Director Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian director making American big-studio debut, handles familiar material with great patience: this is not exactly a lurid crime procedural, nor a revenge thriller. (The movie signals its pedigree right out front with the kind of black-and-white Warner Brothers shield usually reserved for films by Clint Eastwood.) But while Prisoners has some psychological and moral complexity, especially when a dangerous, hard-drinking Dover attempts to torture his way to answers, at heart it’s a high-toned potboiler somewhere between The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and Silence of the Lambs—closer to the stylish, involving, semi-trashy former than the more elegant latter.
This is no small feat; Prisoners is exactly the kind of adult-driven drama studios barely bother to make. Its craft is impeccable, and electric in high definition: the cinematography by Roger Deakins turns ordinary sights like rainy streets, car-following shots, and rain-streaked windows into recurring visual motifs, and he paints beautifully with the light and shadow of cars in the rain. Indeed, this is a very rainy movie; not quite Seven levels of murky downpour (or, for that matter, of despair and decay), but maybe a more grounded version of the same mood. Villeneuve also puts together sequences of great suspense: Loki trailing and then chasing a creepy-looking guy who shows up at a vigil through the girls, stumbling through suburban backyards, and a later scene of a car racing through slushy traffic.
Though so much of the movie’s interest lies in its visuals, the Blu-ray’s few extras focus on the characters and the acting that brought them to life; the filmmaking technique is secondary, and no director’s commentary is available to add insight. While the ensemble is impressive—Jackman and Gyllenhaal in particular are terrific, cementing their reputations as formidable adult dramatic actors—the tapestry of characters isn’t as rich as it might have been. Maria Bello and Viola Davis have only slightly meatier wife roles than usual, and many of the smaller roles exist more for the sake of a twisty plot than the sort of color or sense of place found in, say, Zodiac (an unfair standard for any crime movie).
That plot, while wholly engrossing over a longish running time, is pretty much the least challenging, least original element of what feels like an accomplished crime novel. Prisoners has weighty themes and genre-bound suspense, but they never snap into mutual focus; its anxieties are identifiable on a human scale but also familiar on a cinematic one. Villeneuve sees his story through: it ends on an understated note that conventional thriller audiences may find unsatisfying. But more adventurous audiences may feel nonplussed, too; those looking for the insight of a great crime thriller may instead only find some degree of resolution or relief.