“Prisoners” opens and closes with its title, spelled out in stark, vertical letters, not unlike the bars of a jail cell. This aesthetic is fitting, not simply as a reiteration of the film’s title but as an embodiment of the kind of world the characters live in. It’s a world as devoid of hope as the cold winter sun or the expired slush left on the pavement of a quiet Pennsylvanian suburb after a suspect RV drives off, possibly with two young girls locked away behind its doors. Placed at both ends of the movie, the titles trap us in the crushing reality of this pitch dark story — one that allows no escape or solace. Alternatively, one can see the latter title as a deliberate mirror of the first, a preface to the post-movie reality of real life. “Prisoners” concocts a sinister fictional environment that unifies artful filmmaking with real-world implications. Its cynicism strikes deep because, in a way, its story is our own.
This story begins with the Lord’s Prayer, recited in voiceover as a wandering deer steps lightly through the wintry wood. The camera gradually pulls back, and the image breaks into violence as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) fires his rifle and loads Thanksgiving dinner into the back of his pickup. Hunting game is an all-American, albeit controversial, practice that has been around for centuries, so the act itself isn’t surprising. It’s the way the gunfire shatters a state of peace and the way the words of the prayer portend the pseudo Biblical wrath that will overshadow the coming events, that rattles the nerves. It’s a powerful introduction, heavy with gravitas and emblematic of the kind of themes the movie will tackle over the next two and a half hours.
The early scenes in the film unfold much as one would expect. Two girls inexplicably vanish the same evening as the hunt, one Dover’s daughter and the other the daughter of his close friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard). A frantic search ensues. Spearheading the police investigation is hotshot detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man who has solved every case he has ever been assigned. This one proves tricky, however, and the plot tears sinuously through a series of twists and revelations — some compelling, others confusing — that will put the strength of these men and their families to the test.
At times, “Prisoners” feels aggressively downtrodden. Visualized with an abundance of frigid browns and dreary grays, the film begins in a depressing manner and works its way down from there. Given the subject matter at hand, the attitude is largely forgivable. Child kidnapping, Catholic guilt, and Machiavellian morality amount to a less than cheery narrative, and the rest of the movie responds accordingly. But because the film never varies its tone, what was intended as a work of emotional devastation occasionally becomes an emotional slog. Melodrama, taken too far, does to the heart what a standard issue Hollywood action movie might do to the senses. Numbness creeps in, and we begin to fatigue.
That being said, there is something about the way “Prisoners” wears down on the viewer that is strangely spellbinding. It might be the way it makes us so aware of the passage of time, of each day the girls remain unfound, the case unsolved. Patient pacing is the key. Like “Zodiac” and “Memories of Murder” before it, “Prisoners” relies on an accumulating sense of disillusionment as the characters are faced with a slew of dead ends and false trails. Defeat all but settles into their bones, and the fight for closure becomes hollow and bitter. Unlike many genre procedurals, “Prisoners” takes it slow because it’s not ultimately about the big payoff but the desperate, desolate journey. This absence of emotional relief weighs on our minds and draws us, beaten but riveted, from one scene to the next.
In keeping with the mounting despair, veteran DP Roger Deakins (“No Country for Old Men,” “Skyfall”) crafts a beautiful look for the film that is at once grand and tragic. Although the film is set in landlocked Pennsylvania, the atmosphere has a vaguely lost-at-sea feel, an effect heightened by the gorgeous soundtrack of foghorn cellos expressing lyrical lament for a world abandoned. Elegant tracking shots ebb and flow like the tide, moving in to establish moments of psychological intimacy and receding to provide us with a sense of scope and place. In this respect, “Prisoners” evokes “Mystic River,” a movie it has been repeatedly compared to. Both films wash over you visually with poignant cinematography and thematically with the titanic force of their emotionally charged storylines.
It’s worth mentioning that “Prisoners” is a male-dominated show with female characters reduced to supporting roles and emblems of grieving. But the film isn’t sexist; if anything, the gender-skewed casting reflects one of the film’s most fascinating aims: to transpose an Old Testament ethos to contemporary America. The movie’s abundant Christian references are not coincidental — note in particular the deeply devout Dover, the Christian cross tattooed on Loki’s hand, and the way in which church and mentions of supernatural warfare figure into the story.
Much as in the days of Biblical yore, “Prisoners” features men at work, taking action and seeking justice. Dover is a blue-collar carpenter, and Loki a member of law enforcement. Both occupations are millenniums-old, and have traditionally been assigned to male hands. When the children go missing, an enormous strain is placed on the social roles of these two men, Dover as a father and provider, and Loki as society’s safeguard against evil. Their identities in this patriarchal vision of America are threatened, and they go about trying to make things right. This tension erupts in a series of angry, sonorous performances that channel an almost apocalyptic fury. Though lacking in nuance, the acting captures the transfer of vengeful wrath from the hands of God to the hands of man as anguished prayers go seemingly unanswered. Lines are crossed, and “saint” and “sinner” become indistinguishable.
It’s altogether a bleak experience, full of collapsing moral fortitude and pitiless violence. The movie’s single respite doesn’t come until the last scene, and even then it’s so feeble that the film’s exhausting darkness remains largely unaffected. But it’s still something, and in these final moments, “Prisoners” raises a candle of hope for humanity. The small gesture doesn’t guarantee triumph or even a good fight. But it brings faith back into the picture, and in a world as bent and broken as ours, a little bit of faith is exactly what we need.
Jeng is a member of the class of 2016.