Surely there can be no greater horror in this world than harm done to a child. I don’t think of anything that raises more dread or horror in me instantly than the prospect of harm being done to a child. It’s late at night here in the States as I write this. I’m writing as much to try to cope with what I’m feeling as to review this movie, because no film has left me so disturbed, shaken and wrenched as this did in years. Probably since the last time Denis Villeneuve made a film (Incendies, which made a list I made a while back of Top 5 Best Movies I Never Want to See Again. I’ll have to revise that, because Prisoners was worse.
It’s hard to separate the feeling from the evaluation of the art, but Villeneuve has some kind of ability to tap into the darkest and vilest parts of human nature and peel them back slowly, as layers from an onion until you’re left starkly gaping at what humans are capable of becoming, of committing, of being.
Prisoners begins with a Thanksgiving between two families of friends, but quickly slips celebration to frantic tragedy as the two youngest girls in each family go missing. Police arrest a man in a RV who was seen near the disappearance (Paul Dano), but the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhal) has to cut him loose after a 48 hour hold turns up no evidence to charge him.
Convinced, beyond all doubt, that this man took his daughter, one father (Hugh Jackman), kidnaps the man and imprisons him, determined to get from him what the police couldn’t. The two parents of the other girl (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) also become complicit in the interrogation. They continue to question Dano and Gyllenhaal searches desperately against a ticking clock for the missing children while balancing growing suspicions about the parents’ actions.
That’s all I will say about the plot. From that point, the spiral into unspeakable human behavior, pain and suffering in ways and from directions both predictable and completely unexpected, takes the viewers on a white-knuckled ride to a chilling and brilliantly executed finale.
Hugh Jackman has done plenty of films as Wolverine, and that’s what he’ll be most remembered for when his career is complete. Make no mistake about the level of his talent, though. Jackman in last year’s Les Miserables and here in Prisoners shows himself among the best actors in the world. The entire cast is stellar. Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and the entire ensemble deserve praise, but Jackman’s vengeful and desperate father is the razor this movie slides down.
It’s hard to recommend Prisoners. “Hey, do you want to be incredibly engaged and simultaneously shaken to the very core of your soul? Here’s Prisoners!” I’m sitting on my couch looking at our Christmas tree and the sight and the experience are so incongruous that the juxtaposition itself seems wrong. Prisoners may be the best movie I’ve seen this year, but it’s also a film experience so scarring that to give it a “10” somehow seems wrong. I don’t know why. I’m still working it all out as best I can. I don’t think I’ll ever quite get there.