The killing of a child in Denis Villeneuve’s 2010 Incendies is so nightmarish that I hesitate to recommend the film, yet the act is true to a tribal culture perverted by what one character calls “the merciless logic of reprisals”—so true that I was sure the director wouldn’t exploit peril to small children for easy shocks in his kidnapping drama, Prisoners. But my faith has been shaken.
Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski, doesn’t come on like another cheap kidnapping saga. It begins with the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and is studded with Catholic iconography and the promise of resurrection. It’s steeped in the higher gloom—the rain raineth every day—and the longing for a sign from above. Any sign. Christian hunter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) discovers his 6-year-old daughter and her friend missing after Thanksgiving dinner. We don’t know who took them or if they’ve even been taken. But there was an RV parked on the block driven by one Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has what’s described as a 10-year-old’s intellect. There’s no physical evidence—not enough for Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to keep Alex locked up. But in a fracas following Alex’s release, he appears to whisper something to Dover that indicates he has seen the girls. So the hunter takes matters into his own righteous hands.
This is the meat of Prisoners—and I can’t predict how anyone else will react to the scenes in which Dover imprisons and tortures the mulishly withholding simpleton. But I found them shockingly undisturbing. It’s clear Alex knows more than he’s saying, and if it takes pounding his face in to find out what, so be it. Dover sits on the floor and moans at the violence he has been forced to inflict, while the father of the other girl (Terrence Howard) is stricken. Why? This is the old ticking-time-bomb scenario invoked by advocates of extreme interrogation—and if you succeed in selling that (usually bogus) scenario, there’s not much of a moral dilemma, at least in the context of a Hollywood thriller. Villeneuve is trying like hell to elevate what turns out to be a dumb genre picture.
Viola Davis has a crazily nuanced scene when she regards the imprisoned man for the first time, and that chameleon Melissa Leo provides a few frissons in creepy-neutral mode as Alex’s aunt. But Prisoners is a long sentence. The detective moves in slow motion, and you can’t tell if it’s because the pacing and structure are faulty or if it’s the filmmaker’s way of making you think, In the real world, there is no instant gratification. But in the real world there wouldn’t be a red herring as dumb as the one here. And it’s never clear what’s eating Gyllenhaal’s Loki, who’s God’s Loneliest Man—apart from Jackman’s Dover. Or me, sweating through Prisoners.