Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners begins with a foreboding prologue in which we heard the Lord’s Prayer as suburban dad Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) helps his teenage son track and shoot a deer from a distance. Photographed with quiet, slow zooms and a wintry ambience (cinematographer Roger Deakins has never been better), this cryptic scene sets the tone for the tense, contemplative, and oddly beautiful 150 minutes that follow in what is one of the year’s most surprising films.
Rife with biblical allusions and ostensibly grounded in an old fashioned exploration of good vs. evil, Prisoners is more than just your standard kidnapping thriller. It explores the existence of evil, but not in the ghoulish abstract. Nor does it simply give the audience a jolt (which it does, expertly). Rather, it forces us to think about evil’s complexity and everyday-ness—particularly the way it can grow and spread once it takes root, like the trees so eerily and intentionally present in so many of the film’s frames.
The film’s exploration of goodness and badness begins on Thanksgiving as Keller and Grace Drover (Jackman and Maria Bello) celebrate with their friends the Birches (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard), along with both couples’ kids. The warmth, smiles and laughter of these early scenes doesn’t last long. When the families’ two young daughters go missing later in the afternoon, after going outside to play, darkness descends and a cold, wet, bleak battle with evil ensues. A local detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives on the scene and attempts to unravel the mystery of the girls’ disappearance. A mysterious man with a mental handicap (Paul Dano) becomes a person of interest. With every day that passes without finding the girls, the Dovers and Birches become increasingly desperate.
In the spirit of David Fincher’s Zodiac (which also starred Gyllenhaal as a detective who becomes obsessed with solving the case), Prisoners is a labyrinth of a crime procedural, full of dead-ends, false leads, and an abundance of creepy maybe-villains and dark basements. Also like Zodiac, Prisoners amplifies the unease through a pacing and visual style that goes against many conventions of the genre. Slower and less relentless in its violence than most of today’s thrillers, Prisoners lends itself to contemplation as readily as it does armchair sleuthing.
And lest it sound too cerebral or highbrow, be assured: it’s also a white-knuckle experience from start to finish.
Prisoners is about imprisonment on a number of levels. First, the literal sense: in addition to the young kidnapping victims around which the plot revolves, at least four other major characters find themselves imprisoned at various points in the film. The physical imprisonment of one character in the film’s genius final shot is especially jarring.
But the film is also about how we are prisoners in other ways: prisoners to our notion of happiness; prisoners to our job or cause (see Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki); prisoners to our need for retributive justice and—perhaps most importantly—prisoners to our own guilt and shame.
The film suggests that, in a sense, human existence is one big imprisonment. We’re constantly locking up our depravity and protecting ourselves from ourselves. We try to keep our more sordid tendencies hidden and our propensity for evil at bay. But this is easier said than done. In one sequence, snakes escape from formerly locked-tight containers—and similarly, evil is always desperate to break free and roam wild. It wants to infect the good. Part of the power of Prisoners is that it depicts the insidious tactics of evil in a manner that feels utterly close to home. It’s not just about big, bad, nightmarish villains. It’s about the little ways that all of us get infected.