In Prisoners, a strikingly fine, subtly artful, and uniquely creepy suspense tale, it is well understood that God and the devil are in the details. We get a taste of the film’s special attention to detail in the opening sequence, with a stern father (Hugh Jackman) reciting the Lord’s Prayer as we gaze at a placid deer in the woods, an innocent on the brink of slaughter at the hands of the man’s teenaged son. Soon, a ratty camper slinks by the suburban neighborhood with the muffled sound of the ’70s Christian hit “Put Your Hand in the Hand.” The stage is set for a knotty yet enigmatic tale of missing children, in which selective motifs and items take on narrative and metaphorical meaning.
Every once in a while, a film approaches the crime genre from a much more artistic and atmosphere-conscious angle, carefully avoiding the pulpy path. Director Denis (Incendies) Villeneuve’s Prisoners belongs in the category of superior films such as Mystic River and this year’s The Place Beyond the Pines, in which tangled family values and the banality of evil collide, and become fodder for filmic art.
In this complex tale, based on the agony of searching for a mysteriously disappeared pair of young children over the course of several days, the prisoners in question extend beyond the girls desperately sought. Jackman’s character, whose mantra is “pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” is a troubled figure, in the clutches of his own intensity, inner rage, apocalyptic paranoia, and vengeful spirit, not above imprisoning and torturing an intellectually challenged young man he suspects of wrongdoing. His wife (played by Maria Bello) sinks into her own prison of despair and medicinal escapism, while Jake Gyllenhaal, with a nervous twitching blink, plays the dogged detective, a maze-chaser imprisoned by frustration and the confederacy of crazies around him. Melissa Leo, working against the type of the overripe tart roles she keeps finding herself in, puts in a surprising performance as a cunning world-wearied fringe dweller.
Despite the impressive level of the cast, one of the clear stars of this film is the great cinematographer Roger Deakins. He puts in Oscar-worthy work, poetically feeding off of the tale’s core sense of dread with his heightened visual sense. He says a lot with a slowly moving shot of a tree in winter. So much for crime-time grit. There are deeper, more disturbing forces at work in this dark jewel.