During a pleasant Thanksgiving lunch in small-town working-class suburbia, two little girls are abducted in broad daylight.
That’s the straightforward premise for a gruelling, gripping story of anger, loss, justice and the hunger for hope.
The parents are naturally frantic as the stress of the search presses on them like a giant corkscrew, but while there are plenty of high-end emotions coursing through this splendid, solid, engrossing crime drama, it’s the many smaller, quieter moments that scream loudest about every parent’s most dreaded nightmare.
Jake Gyllenhaal is all eyebrows and angst as the dedicated cop; Paul Dano is unnerving as the mentally deficient suspect; Terrence Howard (Hustle & Flow) hits a career high as one of the fathers; as the mothers, Maria Bello and Viola Davis (The Help) capture the unending torture of trying to cope with such open-ended trauma.
But, when all is said, this is Hugh Jackman‘s film.
As the frustrated, financially strapped father, he goes from blurting out his rage to channelling it in the most frightening way when he does not get the answers he wants from the police about where the girls are.
Jackman was terrific in Les Miserables; with his Wolverine franchise he proved his smarts by making us care about a second-tier superhero. Yet those films were well within his established wheelhouse. Here, Jackman proves his chops as a meaty dramatic actor capable of handling hard emotions and tough scenes.
Given the hot-blooded, hot-button nature of its story, and the propensity of directors these days to cut cut cut, it takes a lot for a film to step back from the obvious, bide its time and unravel slowly.
Prisoners does that; it’s like a coiled spring of tension that gets tighter and tigher until the film’s brilliantly handled final moments. Rarely does a film grant audiences the intelligence to intuitively understand the subtleties of storytelling, and then reward them with jaw-dropping payoffs.
Easily one of the films of the year – and what a great year for films it has turned out to be – Prisoners is so carefully nuanced that a second viewing reveals just how deftly the story is unfurled. It’s definitely an example of a film that gains with a repeat visit.
And if there is one thing above all else to recommend Prisoners, it’s the way it captures that white-hot skewer of fear that must run through the heart and mind of every parent who has ever suddenly looked around them and thought, “where’s my kid?”
9 out of 10