Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners sounds cookie-cutter conventional, and in fact there is nothing fresh in the concept: two little girls are abducted, and the father of one of them goes after a suspect the police have released. The clock is ticking ... and other cliches we've heard way too many times before. But the film is so sharply directed, tautly edited, so rich and believably acted -- Hugh Jackman is the fierce and desperate father, Jake Gyllenhaal the obsessed but coolly rational detective -- that you quickly forgive its tired story. Nothing else is tired in Prisoners, one of the most intense, satisfying thrillers to appear in years.
The setting is a cold, wet Pennsylvania town in November, a place isolated enough to be surrounded by woods yet populous enough to have bland suburban streets, where two neighboring families are having dinner together when their 6-year-old daughters disappear. Keller Dover (Jackman), a struggling carpenter, responds with the impatience you would except from any father - until the spookily quiet suspect (Paul Dano) is released. If you've seen any version of the trailer (you can find one here), you'll know that Keller then turns vigilante, while his friend Franklin (Terrence Howard), the father of the other missing child, has qualms about Keller taking the case into his own brutal hands.
The great Roger Deakins did the cinematography, and you can almost feel the kind of damp chill that sunlight rarely fights through. There are no wasted scenes, hardly any clunky exposition as we gradually learn more about the characters. Keller keeps stockpiles of supplies in the basement in case of emergencies, almost beyond reason. But even while Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay asks us to question Keller's grip on reason, Jackman makes him a passionately determined, rational hero.
Gyllenhaal takes the familiar role of the smart detective butting heads with his stupid superiors, and gives it new power. We never get an explanation for the tattoos on his hands, and don't need them. All we need to know is in his haunted eyes, his own driven urgency, and a single line about his childhood. (Maybe he didn't have to be named Loki, which today makes us think of Tom Hiddleston's character in The Avengers movies.)
The smaller roles are also beautifully acted, with Viola Davis as one of the mothers, and Melissa Leo as the suspect's aunt.
Villeneuve's last film, the exceptional Incendies, was set largely in the Middle East; it's an ambitious work, charged with politics and religion. Prisoners is an extraordinarily well-made popcorn movie. It doesn't carry the weight of its marketing tagline: "How far would you go to protect your family?" Like most thrillers, this one doesn't provoke us to take things so personally; that's why thrillers make for great escapism.
The film reaches for seriousness in a half-hearted way, and if the portentous opening scene is any indication, it's just as well the attempt was minor. The movie begins with Jackman reciting The Lord's Prayer in voiceover while Keller teaches his teenaged son to shoot a deer, which makes you fear that a heavy-handed pretentious movie is ahead. But the scene instantly gives way to a sleek, deft style. And later, the misguided religiosity that affects events comes from an unexpected direction.
So, forget how provocative the marketers want the film to be. It's enough that Prisoners is a smart, brilliantly successful thriller.