There are moments when Prisoners feels like the Zero Dark Thirty of child-kidnapping thrillers. Here’s the deal: Hugh Jackman gives a powerhouse performance as Keller Dover, a Pennsylvania contractor, survivalist and recovering alcoholic whose six-year-old daughter goes missing on Thanksgiving Day. He’s matched by Jake Gyllenhaal, who is exceptional, haunted and haunting, as Loki, the obsessive cop who isn’t acting fast enough for Keller. Loki lacks the hard evidence to arrest Alex (Paul Dano), a mentally challenged suspect who’s been hanging around the neighborhood in a camper. Pushed to the limit, Keller snatches Alex from the home of his aunt (a quietly devastating Melissa Leo), holding him prisoner for days in an abandoned building and torturing him for info in ways that would shame any interrogator, CIA or Al Qaeda.
What would you do in Keller’s place: condemn him or support him? That’s the question that eats at you as Prisoners holds you in its grip for an agonizing 153 minutes. Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 Incendies was nominated for an Oscar as Best Foreign-Language Film, isnot giving a sermon. Neither is Aaron Guzikowski, whose ever-tightening script keeps the suspense on high sizzle. Pulses will pound and nerves will be fried as Jackman and Gyllenhaal burn with white-hot intensity. Even without armies doing battle, this is war, which a Prussian general once defined as “an act of force to compel our enemy to do our will.”
That’s the plan for Keller, who leaves his grieving wife (Maria Bello) at home to carry out his persecution in secret. For help, he turns to Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), a neighbor whose seven-year-old daughter has also been kidnapped. Franklin and his wife (the always superb Viola Davis) are appalled at Keller’s vigilante justice. But if it gets their daughter back, so be it.
Some will write off Prisoners as shameless exploitation. But like Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, to which it’s been compared, Prisoners is so artfully shaped and forcefully developed that objections fade. The great cinematographer Roger A. Deakins (No Country for Old Men) brings a classic rigor to the film as his camera finds the secret crevices of this blue-collar community and the ravaged faces of its lost children and damaged parents. Villeneuve takes his unflashy time building character and revealing troubled psyches in the most unlikely of places. His work with the exemplary actors results in a film of startling impact, packed with twists you don’t see coming. You can’t shake it.