Prisoners: Moral Exploration or Exploitation?

Or perhaps both? The well-wrought serial killer film starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal defies easy categorization.
Alcon Entertainment/WB

Stylish, ominous, morally fraught.

Exploitative, derivative, comically improbable.

It would be nice simply to attach one or the other of these two descriptive sets to Prisoners, the American debut of gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. But such clarity is elusive here, and compelling cases can be made for both.

Villeneuve's somber thriller opens with the disappearance of two young girls on a bleak, chilly Thanksgiving Day in small-town Pennsylvania. Post-turkey-dinner, the girls venture out of the house alone, and they don't return. Their respective parents (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) search for them with escalating alarm, but it is clear--both from the creepy camper that had been parked on street and from the menacing vibrato of the soundtrack--that Something Horrible Has Happened.

The driver of the camper turns out to be a young man (Paul Dano) with the cognitive capacity of a 10-year-old, and the detective in charge of the investigation (Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly rules him out as a suspect. But the father of one of the girls, Keller Dover (Jackman), is convinced that the boy knows something, and he decides to take matters into his own hands, with ever-grimmer consequences. 

The film that unfolds from these premises can easily be viewed through either of the two aforementioned lenses. On the one hand, Prisoners is an extremely well-wrought production, boasting a strong cast (also featuring Melissa Leo) and pushing the moral questions it raises--about vengeance and vigilantism, guilt and innocence, the line between victim and perpetrator--well beyond the comfort zone of the typical Hollywood product. Villeneuve, who directed the fascinating 2010 film Incendies, plays with echoes of many of the better crime films of the past two decades, including The Vanishing, Mystic River, Gone Baby Gone, and, most notably, David Fincher's multiple contributions to the genre. Indeed, the dark, sleety vision conjured by Villeneuve seems almost to occupy the midpoint of a line drawn between Fincher's Se7en and The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. For those inclined toward a generous view, Prisoners is a superior thriller: vivid, unexpected, and unsettling.

And yet ...

For all the film's craftsmanship, it's hard to shake the sense that there is a fundamental mismatch between the genuine horrors that open the film (the missing children, the anguished parents) and the more conventionally cinematic ones that close it. (Though Villeneuve tinkers--often cleverly--with the tropes of the serial killer genre, he does not relinquish them.) One could make the case, I suppose, that the film's early artistry and sense of moral consequence simply promise more than the strictures of genre ultimately allow it to provide. Other flaws are evident as well--a religious subtext that is never adequately developed, a red herring the size of a blue whale, etc.--though they are minor by comparison.

So which is it, ethical exploration or exploitation? In the end, I come down reservedly on the former side: The work done here by Jackman, Gyllenhaal (whose performance builds slowly but strikingly), and especially Villeneuve is simply too powerful to ignore. In spite of the mixed responses it may elicit, Prisoners is a film that merits seeing, one that announces the arrival of a significant directorial talent.  

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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