When The Silence of the Lambs found unexpected box office and awards success, a subgenre of dark, disturbing, serious crime drama exploded. Being abrasive, gritty, and utterly nihilistic found bankability that it hadn’t enjoyed since film noir, with the added traits of procedural plotting and villains with extreme psychological perversions. After David Fincher made Se7en, the apotheosis of the trend, though, the trend seemed to be doomed, as no film could match or surpass it without coming off as parody or passé. Perhaps enough time has passed to take such films as fresh exercises, but Prisoners somehow draws from the general traits and story ticks of those films, and still avoids overt mimesis and lands on the screen as a vital and unique work.
Most of the film’s vitality is owed to its stacked block of artists, each of whom crafts their slice of Prisoners like their lives depend on it. The film’s most broadly obvious asset, its screenplay, follows the search for two little girls who are kidnapped from their respective families. It zeroes in on one of the fathers, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), both of them obsessives: Dover because he is a hardcore survivalist, and Loki because he is a workaholic with a guilt complex. The two of them quickly see each other as a threat to each other’s searches, which soon break off into more or less parallel investigations that test their pride.
The screenplay moves between them with elliptical mastery. It cuts away from plotlines so we’re spared story beats that we knew were coming, but for long enough that we miss critical events we’re dying to understand, before slowly and sparingly revealing each of its mysteries. The script’s tricky subversions and dismantling of the police procedural recall Fincher’s anti-thriller Zodiac (also starring Gyllenhaal as an obsessive crime investigator), but it moves somewhere in between that and a pure-blooded, hardboiled whodunnit, and that constant ambiguity is much of what gives each plot turn suspense and surprise.
And make no mistake, Prisoners is extremely gripping work: watching it is like having the tip of a needle slowly brushed across your back. As Dover and Loki both close in on leads that may or may not be real, the cinematography moves from stately, front-lit coverage into moody images of increasing contrast. And though it’s all well and good to compliment director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins for well-intellectualized camera placement and lighting conceits, that praise alone does not do justice to the film’s superlative visual accomplishments. It measures up to the very best of Deakins’s work (yes, I’m talking Jesse James) — no small praise for, y’know, one of the best living cinematographers. One late scene in particular, involving a panicked night drive along blindingly bright streets at night, is like absolutely nothing I have ever seen before, the product of some witch doctor’s formula of filters, racked shutter speed, and other camera tricks.
And though this may be Deakins’s achievement above all else, the cast — including Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Paul Dano — rises to their reputations. Jackman is especially on fire, playing the steely-eyed, deeply angry father with unerring conviction. It’s in his care that the movie takes on its darkest themes, forming a critique of American foreign policy that is subtle and nuanced enough that it avoids the heavy-handedness that it could have easily run aground of.
It’s that utter care for its mechanics that makes Prisoners such a perfect machine, so unassailable at all corners, elevating it from being the self-conscious plotting exercise that so many crime dramas are. Setting itself apart suits it well; nothing, after all, can top the moment in Se7en when Brad Pitt demands to know the contents of a cardboard box. But a scene in Prisoners in which a character comes across ten mystery boxes is an appropriate nod to the genre’s old trappings, as well as its potential to still surprise us in our time.