In “Prisoners,” director Denis Villeneuve is allowed the privilege few lesser known filmmakers have these days: The chance to not only make a multimillion-dollar American movie with A-list actors, but to also see his vision to the end. It would have been easy for the studio to step in and dumb this material down to another Hollywood thriller. Watching the film, you feel nothing short of grateful that the project was helmed by Villeneuve, whose “Incendies” received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film. Give him an intelligent script by Aaron Guzikowski in addition to a faultless cast, and you’ve got a recipe for one of the most distinctive crime dramas since “Mystic River.”
Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, an all-American family man with a beautiful wife, played Maria Bello, a teenaged son, and a 6-year-old daughter. His best friends are Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the Birchs, an African-American couple who have a little girl of their own. When the two families get together on Thanksgiving, both young girls go out to play and completely vanish. Paul Dano is ambiguously effective as Alex Jones, a mentally challenged man who was seen parked outside the neighbor’s house shortly before the girls were taken. The cops are unable to find any concrete evidence on Alex, prompting Keller to take the law into his own hands.
On the surface, “Prisoners” might sound like the same old generic thriller mentioned earlier. But there’s so much more to this story than one would ever expect. This is primarily because the narrative is so well structured, delivering on every plot point, avoiding all cheap clichés, and leaving plenty of room for human drama.
The actors sell every minute of the script, never hitting a wrong note. Bello is heartbreaking as a mother too distressed to leave her bed. Howard and Davis are superb as two people forced to rethink their entire moral code in order to save their daughter. An unrecognizable Melissa Leo especially sneaks up on you as Alex’s aunt and caretaker. The movie truly belongs to its leading men, though.
Jackman gives the best performance of his career, even more so than his Oscar-nominated work in “Les Miserables.” Here, Jackman explores a side of mankind we rarely get to see in modern media, vulnerability. That doesn’t mean Jackman is playing a weak man in the usual sense. His character has a fair deal of brutal and intense scenes as he takes drastic measures to uncover the truth. Half of the time you might expect him to go Wolverine on someone. Jackman isn’t playing Wolverine, however. He’s a father, fighting those around him and his own inner demons as he desperately tries to deal with the grief eating away inside.
Another great leading performance comes from an understated Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who leads the kidnapping investigation. He’s the perfect contrast to Jackman’s family man, being a loner who has Thanksgiving dinner by himself in a Chinese restaurant. Loki could have been written as a cookie-cutter obsessed cop. Like the rest of the characters, though, he’s never turned into an archetype or an action hero for that matter.
People might walk into “Prisoners” thinking they’re going to get “Taken,” a vigilante picture where the police are useless, chases fill-in for the story, and the protagonist is always easy to cheer on. They’ll be surprised to find “Prisoners” is not only an exceptional entertainment, but a unique one with something to say about family and ethics. While it’s definitely a suspenseful movie, it goes beyond being purely a suspense movie.
• Ahwatukee native and Desert Vista graduate Nick Spake is a student at Arizona State University. He has been working as a film critic for five years, reviewing movies on his website, NICKPICKSFLICKS.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.