Prisoners is one of those movies for which the act of watching becomes a kind of physical exercise, not unlike a bench press. It will be notable, over the duration of its run — it opens this Friday in wide release — for the regularity with which your friends forego your invitation based on their energy levels. It's a movie, they'll say, that they haven't properly geared up for.
And with good reason. The film is a long, tense, bleakly shot moral criminal thriller in the style of Zodiac and Mystic River. We're in small-town or deep-suburban PA, where the rain and snow commingle and the hunters recite "Our Fathers" before shooting deer.
Two families, the white Dovers and the black Franklins, are enjoying Thanksgiving together when their daughters suddenly go missing. A twitchy, sporadically tattooed detective with a perfect clearance rate named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) locates the only real suspect, a man with the IQ of a ten-year-old named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who is soon released on lack of evidence.
That doesn't sit well with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a general contractor with a backwoods beard who's short on patience. Jackman shouts an awful lot here, and it's downright scary (an Oscar nod wouldn't be unreasonable to expect). He abducts the hapless Jones and proceeds to torture him in the bathroom of his decrepit former home, which he's remodeling. Dover pulverizes him for information. He constructs a box around the shower and jiggers with the plumbing to blast scalding water on his victim. Tools are involved. Jones' face becomes an unrecognizable pot pie.
The scenes of torture are truthfully only a small percentage of the film's 153-minute run time. But they're what most people will be talking about because they're so violent. And not gory-gruesome-violent by the way. It's not like he's cutting off fingers. These scenes are somehow even more horrifying because they're so bare-bones. Punch after punch after punch — what any of us could do, if pushed — from a desperate man whose desperation has corrupted the bearings of his moral compass.
Meantime, Loki's on the hunt for the girls' kidnapper, and the film doesn't lack its procedural, ticking-clock thrills. Gyllenhaal is competent as the lead detective, but not quite on Jackman's physical or emotional plane. Without a secret flaw or desire of his own, he remains the flat helmsman of an increasingly complex criminal back story. Nonetheless, the matrix of missing persons and past crimes Loki unearths is a chilling echo of Ariel Castro and the horror on our doorsteps in Northeast Ohio.
Ultimately, the film begs a rigorous, non-stop review of Right vs. Wrong. And despite a few minor plot holes and lots of induced wincing, the masterful look and tone of Prisoners are ideal for the moral coursework it occasions.