It’s likely you already know too much about Prisoners, the excellent new film by young Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. Yes, Prisoners is about a kidnapping and its brutal aftermath. Yes, the movie’s scenes of unreconstructed violence are deeply disturbing. Yes, it has a crackerjack cast, which includes Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Jake Gyllenhaal as the talented and tormented detective assigned to the case.
Working with a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, Villeneuve has made a movie that deserves placement on the top shelf of recent dark thrillers, alongside films like Gone Baby Gone, No Country for Old Men and Mystic River — and this is no random list. Guzikowski knows his stuff. He assembled a dream team for Prisoners, including cinematographer and Coen brothers stalwart Roger Deakins and co-editors Gary Roach and Joel Cox, the latter of whom is a longtime collaborator with Clint Eastwood.
So yes, with a pedigree like that, Prisoners will get under your skin, though perhaps not for the reasons you’ve been led to believe. This is a sweeping Russian novel of a movie, tangled and epic, and its title should be taken as the first clue to the abyss it opens up. Quite literally, the movie is threaded together by a series of abductions and imprisonments, each one leading with horrible inevitability to the next.
But Prisoners also delves into the notion, at once devious and devastating, that every person touched by crime is imprisoned — an idea that transcends questions of good and evil. There may be no key unlocking psychological prisons of trauma and grief. From its gorgeous opening scene, which hones in on the filigreed etching of a tree’s convoluted bark, Prisoners is a maze with no exit. And, again, that maze is literal and figurative, and so metaphorically charged it will make you itch.
Unhappy families are always unhappy in their own way, and it should be pointed out that, contrary to a bit of (somewhat racist) Hollywood marketing, not one but two children (one black, one white) are abducted at the beginning of Prisoners. Hugh Jackman is riveting as the coiled-up control freak with outback survivalist tendencies, and Maria Bello is an appropriately frazzled mess as Jackman’s pill-popping wife.
But it is those other stricken parents, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who most painfully and humanely register the tidal nightmare of violence consuming everyone around them. As a father paralyzed by loss, Howard’s performance is raw and unnerving, and Davis creates an equally profound portrait of angst and hurt. Together, they offer a sort of regenerate nod to Macbeth, and their struggle is essential to the awful logic that drives Prisoners.
PRISONERS: Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Cinematography, Roger Deakins. Editing, Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Music, Jóhann Jóhannsson. Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Maria Bello. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. R. 153 minutes. Four and a half stars.