(The shoving of suspects against things happens in "Prisoners" rather a lot.)
For much of its running time, the grim thriller "Prisoners" is as concerned with psychological confinement as it is with the literal confinements that drive its story.
First, the literal confinements. The film, directed by Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies") from a script by Aaron Guzikowski, starts on a rainy Thanksgiving. A working-class couple (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and their middle-class friends (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) are spending the holiday together, kids underfoot. Then each couple's youngest daughter disappears.
Circumstantial evidence suggests a low-IQ oddball (Paul Dano) had something to do with it; he'd parked his ratty RV in the neighborhood at the time the girls vanished. But a driven police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't find enough hard evidence to press charges, so the oddball goes free.
This prompts Jackman, nearly feral with rage, to take matters into his own hands and kidnap Dano -- the plan being to torture the kid until he reveals where the girls are hidden.
As you might imagine, Jackman's assumption of guilt -- which may or may not be flawed -- leads to a few plot complications and moral quandaries.
Which leads us to the (arguably more interesting) psychological confinements.
The story is furiously acted and loaded with dread, and gets more than a little bizarre as it develops. But at its best, "Prisoners" dwells on the ways the characters affected by the case are held mentally captive -- by conviction, compulsion, procedure, skewed beliefs, rage, and grief -- and how each character's blind spot and/or maniacal focus furthers or frustrates the search for the girls.
Villeneuve (working with Coen brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins, who piles on the slate-grey gloom) creates a world in which faith and despair wage quiet war, where people with different notions of "justice" undermine each other's efforts. It creates a deep-tissue suspense, because you could easily see the mystery never being solved as a result. Some of the film feels like a companion piece to "Zodiac" (underlined by Gyllenhaal's presence) or the original 1988 Dutch version of "The Vanishing" -- where the filmmakers were as interested in the obsession with solving a mystery as they were in the mystery itself.
Unfortunately, at its not-best, "Prisoners" also feels a little at war with itself.
Villeneuve and Deakins milk the material for every ounce of Serious Meaning, and all the actors dive in head-first (Gyllenhaal and Dano in particular are excellent; I refer readers to James Franco's geek-out over Gyllenhaal's performance at Vice.). But is there a limit to how much Serious Meaning can be gleaned from Guzikowski's script -- which goes all pulp-mystery loopy every once in a while?
Without spoiling anything, there's just enough weird melodramatic pop-thriller coincidence threaded through the story -- just enough of the 1993 American remake of "The Vanishing," if you will -- to slightly undermine the vibe, and the filmmaker's efforts at profundity.
(The movie also drags Howard and Davis into the torture plot without quite knowing what to do with them once they're there, which is unfortunate, because it makes these initially central characters suddenly seem extraneous.)
Putting it another way: Matters get slightly outlandish, and they get just outlandish enough to undermine the whole Deeply Serious Prison of the Human Mind meditation the movie's been carefully building during its two-and-a-half-hour running time.
"Prisoners" is still a fascinating, skillfully directed, overpoweringly atmospheric mystery. If they'd better reconciled the grand ambitions with the story kinks, it could have been great. _______
(153 mins., rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout)Grade: B-minus
I'll have a table (specifically, Table M-14 in Artist Alley) at the Rose City Comic Con, set for this Saturday and Sunday at the Oregon Convention Center. Come by and say hi. I'll sketch you something.
What are my wares? These are my wares:
1. FREE "Sabertooth Vampire" temporary tattoos. The design is pictured above (though the actual tattoo is blessedly smaller). Grab one while supplies last.
7. And, why not, a few copies (hot off the presses) of an educational comic I co-wrote with economist Joe Cortright about cluster economic theory. The art's by Adrian Wallace, the colors are courtesy Bill Mudron, the pages are A4 (it was printed in Denmark), and I'm pleased with how it turned out.