Coming third in the People’s Choice Award at Toronto International Film Festival this year, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and Contraband writer Aaron Guzikowski’s dark thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, packs a blood-chilling and sickening punch for any parent. It also questions just how far you would go to find a missing loved one, igniting a vigilante side. Its controversial element is further emphasised by an equally controversial performance by Jackman, who gets far more bestial than Wolverine could ever dream of being.
When Keller Dover’s (Jackman) young daughter and her friend go missing after a Thanksgiving meal with close friends, the Birches (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), he takes matters into his own hands, as he believes local detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is pursuing the wrong leads. As the pressure mounts and time is running out, how far will this desperate father go to reunite his family?
It could be argued just how ‘realistic’ is the father’s response in this story, acting merely as a convenient excuse to suggest some titillating, barbaric torture methods for kiddie abductors. This could affect how the rest of the film is received for some. That said the blind panic and subsequent frustration are a powerful and heady cocktail that fuels sentiment as the film’s eerie momentum moves in stops and starts.
Guzikowski’s story satisfyingly balances Dover’s actions with Loki’s reactions, throwing open debate about who is right or wrong in the escalating situation. Like Contraband, family is the key motivator so it’s easy to go along for the grim ride and pin it on the obvious bogeyman. There are some satisfying twists and action set-pieces too, keeping things stimulating enough throughout the two-hours-plus run-time.
Jackman is a compelling ‘man possessed’ in this, obviously tapping into his own paternal feelings to bring a wounded Dover alive. Fans may be shocked at just how aggressive the likeable actor gets and what inner demons he evokes. However, his character’s trump card is his missing daughter and the ‘unknown’ factor of being in such a dilemma that most of us will thankfully never find ourselves in – think Liam Neeson’s Taken, only more raw and graphic. For this reason, however bizarre and skewed events get, you are still behind Dover, flaws and all. His domineering presence also challenges Howard’s convincingly played, moralistic but guilt-ridden Birch and the futility of the law – as the fathers see it.
Actually, Gyllenhaal as Loki is the dark horse, who operates from behind a badge but has a mysterious, undisclosed background. We can guess Dover’s actions, and to an extent, Loki’s on the job, but Gyllenhaal’s easy and accommodating stance is punctuated by volatile self-loathing outbursts as Loki, even though the detective does play to type (the jaded wild card who always gets his man). Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s verbal confrontations bristle with controlled menace as we watch both pushed to their limits. Their conclusion will both thrill and divide opinion too, and the core reason for the abductions are not wholly clear, initially.
Nevertheless, Villeneuve’s taut directing, coupled with a strong story, gritty cinematography and captivating performances (including Little Miss Sunshine’s Paul Dano and Melissa Leo) make Prisoners a tantalising watch that will solicit and repulse in equal measure, like a gladiatorial show on display in a barren environment.