“Prisoners”, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is an intricately constructed story, in which a plot is built like a labyrinth. Its dramaturgy seems to be almost errorless, but – unfortunately – the director overdoes with dead ends. The small town in which the action takes place is presented as a vestibule of hell. The creator multiplies dead bodies and traumatic stories that are not connected to the main action, but only strengthen the atmosphere of terror. It would make sense if the characters were as deep as the darkness is. It doesn’t happen, but the movie remains a great thriller that neither loses its tension nor falls into the trap of kitschy twists that come from nowhere to propel the action.
Two sweet little girls are kidnapped when they parents are celebrating the thanksgiving. Keller Dover (great Hugh Jackman) – a father of one of them, who is a carpenter and a hunter – doesn’t have enough faith in the police and begins his own investigation that brakes all possible rules – the desperate man will torture and humiliate his suspect – a clearly retarded local freak Alex (very good Paul Dano). The plot of “Prisoners” is composed of two parallel and mutually intertwining threads. Keller remains in the centre of the first one, when the second story is contacted on a police detective David Loki (incredible Jake Gyllenhal), who is known in the local community for astounding effectiveness. The police officer is a typical representation of a guy who is extremely tired with all terrible things that he has seen and his own traumatic past that deprives him of joy of living. Loki seems to be run only by need for perfection that turns into an obsession. Dover is an impulsive, religious man who keeps in the basement all things that his family could need in case of cataclysm. Two contrasted protagonists represent oppositional ways of fighting for justice – we observe conflict of two strong characters that want the same but have different motivations and different believes. The director raises difficult questions on the definition of morality and its borders when facing extreme danger and fear that leads to the old and immortal dilemmas – can terror fight terror and how far can a parent go to protect a child.
From the beginning till the very end the atmosphere in the movie remains gloomy and depressing, but what initially seemed to be a sad crime story about a tragedy of a father who – when facing what’s unimaginable, doesn’t pass the test of humanity and turns into an aggressive aggressor, who is driven by terror that makes him blindly mad, is replaced by subtle puzzle that the audience will try to solve with Loki. What’s important, the director doesn’t turn Dover’s madness into an effective background, but paints it with different colours and – above all – with empathy.
Villeneuve puts “Prisoners” in a religious context – the entire narration is fulfilled with catholic symbols and prayers, but faith itself doesn’t really influence the action. On the contrary, Dover always prays before another series of tortures that he treats Alex with, but words about love and forgiveness that come from the God that he wants in his life so badly stop him neither from cruelty nor from breaking the Decalogue. The protagonist looks in his religion for forgiveness, but not for strength to stop the madness and find faith in detective Loki and his colleagues. Franklin (very good Terrence Howard), the father of the second missing girl, becomes in this story an embodiment of conscience. He is the broken man who desperately wants his kid to come back home, but repeats that violence will never be a good solution, even in such a hard-core situation that his and Dover’s family are in.
The motif o labyrinth also comes back “Prisoners” and at some point turns out to be a dramaturgical dominance. The story makes a circle and the entire movie becomes a dark tale about omniscience of evil, but its origin remains unexplained. The director leaves gaps in the puzzle, which is problematic, because all those doubts that the audience is left with seem to be imperfections of the script rather than intentional ambiguities. Nevertheless, “Prisoners” is a great thriller and the puzzle (or the labyrinth) that it’s based on makes more sense than nonsense.