No raw nerve is left untapped in a film that sees Hugh Jackman on thundering form as a dad whose young daughter is snatched, yards from their home. Jake Gyllenhaal is quietly commanding as the detective whose level head looks likely to get punched off his shoulders when he fails to get results quickly enough, but this is that rare type of thriller that appeals to the intellect as well as hitting hard on a gut level.
We’re put the through wringer, too. Given the emotive nature of the crime, it’s easy to sympathise with small-town family man Keller Dover (Jackman), his frazzled wife (Maria Bello) and their neighbours (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) whose little girl has also been taken. Paul Dano has a much trickier role on his hands as Alex, the fragile yet creepy young man who is immediately picked up for the crime after a tense standoff in the woods with Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal).
Alex has learning difficulties – he’s next to mute – and Loki figures he isn’t capable of abduction. Keller sees things differently; there is evidence, albeit circumstantial, and when Keller roughs him up on his release from custody, Alex whispers something in his ear that suggests he knows the girls whereabouts. It’s a maddening itch that Keller has to scratch and his wife is making him even crazier, wailing and pill-popping and telling him straight that he failed to protect his family. Ouch.
What else is a man to do, but take that douche off the streets, chain him up in a derelict house and proceed to beat and torture the living hell out of him until he starts talking. That’s the theory anyway, but except for the cries of anguish, Alex won’t breathe a word. The violence is relentless, bloody and difficult to watch, but it isn’t graphic or exploitative. With every strike against Alex, it’s Keller’s sanity – his humanity – that is being chipped away. At the same time he is all too human, driven by love – all the way around the bend.
The film announces the arrival of a gifted director, Denis Villeneuve, who ratchets up the suspense to the point where you can almost hear the blood screaming in your own ears. He punctuates the action with long, pregnant silences while Keller is trying hard just to think straight.
Meanwhile, Loki continues his investigation and the trail is circuitous, so that he can’t be sure whether his hunch about Alex was a good one. This whodunit part would be formulaic except for the way Loki’s cerebral approach reflects on Keller’s hard-line tactics in a time-sensitive case. The girls could still be out there in the woods, alive, and slowly dying. And apart from the obvious race against time, it’s the threat Keller faces – of being exposed as a brutal kidnapper – that means this thriller takes a vicelike grip.
The moment of reckoning is inevitable and Keller’s sense of it is palpable, but when it does finally come, it’s not entirely satisfying. As if he senses this, Villeneuve takes off on another tangent, scrambling to tie loose ends in a rather overblown finale and he angles for poetic justice, too. Suddenly, there’s just a little too much going on. It tips the balance slightly and dispels the air of realism which has been carefully crafted up to this point with stark visuals, spare use of sound and arresting performances.
Ultimately, Keller is brought back down to earth with a few narrative bumps, but you’ll still have a hard time pulling your fingernails out of the armrests. The tension never lets up and the moral questions linger without weighing the story down. In a community where ‘the American way’ is defined by the likes of John Wayne and the NRA, Villeneuve doesn’t patronise Keller – the film isn’t a lefty diatribe. It goes beyond politics to illustrate how basic human instinct can test the values we think we hold dear, values that hold society together. Prisoners is one of those films that gets under your skin and burrows deep.
Prisoners is released in UK cinemas on Friday 27th September