Any kind of violence against children is a virtually unspeakable issue to most people. There is an absolute urge to give out the most graphic, specific detail when it comes to adults beating and butchering one another, but, as the tragic life of Michael Jackson exemplified, an absolute taboo when it comes to the uniquely terrible phenomenon of child abuse and pedophilia. Perhaps this is why so many filmmakers have attempted to deal with it and mostly failed. A revenge trope featuring a child or children in danger allows any ruthless director the implicit permission to swap sissy intellect for raw rage. Dealing with folks who deliberately despoil innocence and enjoy kids’ suffering means all modes of retribution are A-okay. Nothing beats watching righteous men and women throw ethos into the wind like feces into a fan and ‘get medieval’ (as Mr.Tarantino would say) on all kinds of abusers and predators.
In the Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve‘s first American film, Keller Dover, the freaked-out raging father played by the Australian old-school trooper-performer Hugh Jackman goes to war with the rest of the world like an epileptic forced to permanently wear a bit between his teeth. Somebody has taken his daughter and her friend and “He’s not a person.” Having forfeited both his own humanity and that of the perpetrator, Keller decides who the guilty part is, kidnaps him, beats him brutally and locks him in a derelict building. After taking the parents of the other little girl into his confidence – played with a benumbed, quiet grief by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard – Dover is repelled and disgusted by their qualms. So far, so clichéd perhaps, but this is nothing like that box-office pair of slut crowd-pleaser, Taken or Taken 2. Jackman may indeed be as wooden as Liam Neeson, but this wood is crafted by a true artisan. Prisoners, written by Aaron Guzikowski, ultimately subverts the usual angry-dad melodrama in a very effective way. Not only is payback a bitch, it turns out, but vendettas get complicated and the cancer of uncertainty suddenly starts to spread.
Plot-wise: Two children go missing on Thanksgiving Eve in a small Pennsylvania town. A young, suspicious man, lurking in a camper is questioned while, at a prayer vigil for the missing kids, another nervous young stranger comes and goes. Red herrings and vague possibilities and connections proliferate. Villeneuve does well to keep things creepy, planting clues for detective-types all over the place, which are credible and original.
Better than Zodiac, Silence of the Lambs, Seven and Mystic River, all of which fail slightly because they’re cut from more complex novels, the gutsy Prisoners suggests that evil can never be confined to the will or ego of a single person or set of actions. No: Crimes happen and some of the guilty are caught. Criminals may or may not get caught but evil, like death, walks around and behind us. Indeed, the bleak cinematographic atmospherics of Roger Deakins’ washed-out Pennsylvanian winter blahs are make for some chilling menace everywhere.
Keller, the kind of survivalist with a basement full of canned goods and batteries – the kind of eccentric we sort of vaguely respect – is clearly locked in to this physical and mental wilderness already before his daughter disappears. It really is a difficult part and Jackman, whose American accent is poor, really is a lightweight in comparison to other members of the ensemble, especially Maria Bello, who plays his wife, and the Oscar-winning Melissa Leo, who is gob-smackingly good as the aunt of a suspect. The champion of slings and arrows, however, is Jake Gyllenhall as Detective Loki. Gyllenhaal, all Elvisy downturned-pout and twitchy eyes, is a showstopper here. In the midst of so much anger and chaos, Loki is a twitchy Buddah. A skeptical classifier who hunts down every informational snippet concerning the girls and their fate.
Nearly all of “Prisoners” takes place within a single week. This whodunit works as a slow peeling onion. However, for those of you who live for their detective thrillers to be overloaded with beaded jolts of adrenaline, this movie may not be your cup of raw sirloin. Stick with it, however, and you’ll get both your share of violence accompanied by the kind of carefully, gently ratcheted-up conflict that roils up your stomach. I was not so much disappointed by the clever twists and turns of revelation at the end as hungry for more popcorn because it is 2 hours, 31 minutes long.