Prisoners is a brutally nihilistic and bleak film. It is also exceptionally effective. There is palpable tension throughout which is enhanced by realistic performances, a sparse score, and gripping imagery. This is every parent’s worst nightmare brought to film.
The film stars Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrance Howard as two couples getting together to celebrate Thanksgiving with their families. They live close to each other in a typical suburban subdivision and appear to have been friends for many years. As the evening goes on the parents realize that the youngest daughters of each family have gone missing. Terror mounts as they search the neighborhood and the police are called to begin an investigation, with Jake Gyllenhaal being the officer assigned the case. The plot is fairly straightforward and follows the attempts of both Gyllenhaal and Jackman as they each conduct their own brand of search. Gyllenhaal is effective as the detective in charge and his police work seems authentic. Jackman leads the cast with a gripping portrayal of a man desperate to hold on to whatever strings he can find.
Prisoners shows us what ramifications can occur when decisions are made during times of extreme trauma. The film centers on Jackman’s character and his search for his daughter. Jackman brings the emotional despair to his eyes and the lengths he will go to find his daughter are never in question. The supporting cast is also incredible as they weave in and out of Jackman’s decisions. Prisoners is both a literal and metaphorical title. Just as the kidnapped girls are literal prisoners the choices made by those in the search have the ability to confine everyone. The film is careful to accentuate the slow moments in the investigation where a decision alters everyone’s fates. Life is a series of choices and sometimes those choices can test our humanity.
Every aspect of this film seems authentic. The homes of each family are suitable for middle class families and every detail of their lives fits within those confines down to the cars they drive. Nothing is out of place. Everything is brilliantly shot by the legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins brings an elegance to every shot and washes the film’s despair down with the rain. Much of the suspense of the film is brought on by the very realness of everything. From the wardrobe to each character’s actions every frame mirrors reality. This is what makes Prisoners so gut wrenching to watch.
Prisoners is a tense and wildly dark thriller that also doubles as a character study of a desperate man. There is a pervading sense of crippling depression throughout as the days go on and solid leads crumble. The film is at it’s most effective when it forces the audience to look inward and decide how far is too far when your child’s life is at stake. The film is an emotional horror story and those who are easily swayed should be prepared for the onslaught of hopelessness that awaits.