“Prisoners” – directed by Denis Villeneuve

*****Spoiler Alert*****

Both excruciatingly painful to watch and thrilling at the same time, this suspense film is packed with powerful performances from start to finish – mostly from its two main stars – Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman. It would be fair to say that any mention of the plot in its entirety would destroy many elements of surprise the film contains. Suffice to say, the film revolves around the kidnapping of two little girls from their suburban home one Thanksgiving afternoon and the journey the two families take to find them. This film reminded me at once of the Jonathan Demme’s “Silence of the Lambs” in its over construction of finding a mass murderer who first abducts his/her victims and then tortures them. The difference here is that this film focuses less on the mass murderer and more on the pain and suffering families experience in the aftermath of such crimes.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a police investigator, Detective Loki, called in on the case from the start that evening. He helps to organize the search to find the girls and ultimately makes it his personal mission to carry out that objective. Hugh Jackman plays one of the girl’s fathers – Keller Dover. The film opens with Keller taking his son deer hunting. They bag a deer and serve it up on Thanksgiving Day with their neighbors and friends, Franklin (Terrance Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). When the police investigator arrives, Keller’s son remembers an RV parked on the street. The RV is located and the driver brought in as a suspect. However during the interrogation, Loki discovers Alex Jones (Paul Dano) has the IQ of a ten year old. Upset because the police plan to release Jones, Keller kidnaps the boy, takes him to an abandon property and tortures the boy over a period of several weeks until he just a pulpy blood mass of flesh. Duplicitous with this affair is the father of the other girl, Franklin, who watches but does nothing as Keller repeatedly beats the boy to the brink of death. From here it would be fair to say that any further discussion of the plot would take away the mystery of the plot, which does not resolve entirely up to the very end of the film.

We have seen other kidnap/abduction/murder films in the past – more recently the film “Mystic River” comes to mind as many of the elements in that film are in this one. Jackman’s Keller Dover is explosive and full of pent up anger that boils over into scenes that seem all too real. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as the ever questing and driven investigator is equally as powerful. Canadian born director Denis Villeneuve is here with his first English language film (I have not seen any of his previous work in Canada) and previously has won awards at Cannes and Berlin Film Festival. His 2010 film, “Incendies” was nominated for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards ceremony. Villeneuve has evoked strong emotions from his actors. Some of the violence is so real it must have unsettled the actors when the cameras stopped rolling. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband – 2012) has given us a plot and volatile dialogue where predicting the end is far from conclusive, even at the end of the film. The movie was shot entirely on location and the audience becomes almost claustrophobic when the camera wedges into narrow hallways or clutter bedrooms passing close to actors who often move in and out of focus.

After a while, the film becomes a visceral experience, a gut wrenching ride through the maelstrom of anger, torment, and grief. We find it incomprehensible that someone could torture another human being with no remorse. At the same time, even stranger are the sympathies we develop as voyeurs to this madness in the hopes of finding the victims. The film is a test of endurance and the result is Oscar worthy nods to the two men who pull off the difficult task of convincing us they are in pain.