It's no surprise that Aaron Guzikowski's original screenplay for Prisoners languished on The Black List, a register of inexplicably unfilmed scripts, for some time. It features elements seldom found in formulaic Hollywood studio projects: complicated characters, ambiguous motives and serious moral dilemmas. It's less of a surprise that French-Canadian film-maker Denis Villeneuve, whose award-winning 2010 film Incendies possessed all these qualities in spades, chose this script for his first English-language feature. Or that having done so, he was able to attract a heavyweight cast of actors - Hugh Jackman. Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo - to play both the leading parts and the more modest supporting roles.
Prior to the disappearance of his six-year-old daughter and her seven-year-old friend, Keller Dover (Jackman) was a hard-working blue collar guy who prayed for the best but prepared for the worst. A survivalist whose basement was stuffed with tinned food and emergency equipment, Dover lived by his father's maxim: be ready. But nothing had prepared him for a parent's worst nightmare. His wife Grace (Bello), numbed by grief and anti-depressants, berates him for not protecting his family. But Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is forced to release the chief suspect (Dano), a man in his twenties with the mind of a child, after only forty-eight hours. Knowing that his daughter's chances of survival are reducing with every passing hour, Dover abducts and tortures Alex, with the reluctant help of the other girl's father (Howard) and his passively complicit wife (Davis). Encouraging the audience to identify with the father's dilemma, Villeneuve's film poses the ethical question, How far would you go, and what might you be capable of?
Persistent rain and Roger Deakins' extraordinary, near-monochromatic cinematography establish a murky atmosphere, creating a sense of characters enveloped by a miasma of impotent rage, primal fear and nagging doubt. Villeneuve's emotionally charged direction draws the best from the actors, including the ever credible Melissa Leo as the suspect's over-protective aunt – a woman scarred by the disappearance of her husband and the earlier loss of her own son to cancer. Even so, Jackman overplays his portrayal of the ruthlessly pragmatic Dover; this contrasts starkly with Gyllenhaal's laser-focused portrayal of the meticulous Detective Loki, which reveals layer upon layer of subtle complexity. Sadly, there are echoes here of Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, whose dense plotting and thought-provoking seriousness were ultimately undermined by a reliance on residual generic trappings and audience gullibility – as exemplified here by a transparently ludicrous red herring and a credibility-stretching plot twist.