This review was originally published on September 5, 2013 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.
“Be ready,” Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) advises his son as they return from a Thanksgiving morning deer hunt. His own father said the same to him, and the God-fearing Keller has followed it to a T since. However, all the emergency supplies in the basement fail to prepare Keller or wife Grace (Maria Bello) for the abduction of their daughter and the equally young daughter of Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) from somewhere between their respective homes in suburban Pennsylvania. The only lead left for Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to pursue is the nearby appearance of a shady RV, driven by simple-minded local Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Without a lick of physical evidence, Loki finds himself unable to hold Alex in custody, and so a distraught Keller decides to take matters into his own hands.
If you’ve already seen the trailers for “Prisoners,” then you probably have a fair idea of where things go from here, but you may not anticipate the precise control that both director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) bring to a potentially routine procedural. Few modern thrillers aim to engage an adult audience first and foremost, and fewer still concern themselves with weighty moral dilemmas while unfolding their mysteries at a deliberate pace (the film runs nearly 150 minutes and hardly feels as such). Even if “Prisoners” doesn’t pack quite the same punch as either Ben Affleck’s great “Gone Baby Gone” or upcoming Israeli import “Big Bad Wolves,” it certainly follows well enough in their bleak, taut footsteps.
The title, of course, harbors many interpretations: the literally trapped girls and suspects, Keller’s inability to protect his kin, Loki’s frustration with a dead-end case (he’s cracked every other one to date), the wives stricken by grief (a touch that all but sidelines Bello and Davis). All of this angst is complemented well by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s foreboding score and captured starkly by Roger Deakins’ cinematography, itself casting a worthy winter’s chill over the proceedings as each character is pushed to physical and emotional extremes. Jackman and Gyllenhaal serve as two sides of the same coin, with the former delivering a positively feral performance while the latter conveys the more oppressed frustrations of being hamstrung by due process and dwindling clues. Although Dano often seems to be serving up a variation on the same sniveling performance, his work as Alex walks a fine line between a general guilelessness and more sinister gestures, with his aunt (an aged-up Melissa Leo) serving as his sole defender.
Villeneuve and Guzikowski aren’t necessarily immune to every crime-thriller convention: the requisite red herring is immediately transparent, while some breathless exposition in the second act is needed to thrust us into the home stretch. Still, rarely a moment is ever wasted, a consequence ignored, and though the climax is a corker, the final shot is even better. “Prisoners” requires and rewards your attention in equal measure. Be ready.
SCORE: 8.4 / 10
"Prisoners" will be released in theaters on September 20th.