There is nothing more horrifying than having your child being taken from you. It's not just the loss of your child, but the destruction of family and the promise of the future. Few people come back whole from the experience and others wish it was them taken instead.
The recent events involving Ariel Castro sent a chill down the spines of parents everywhere and director Denis Villeneuve taps into this primal fear for his follow-up feature to 2011's Best Foreign feature nominee, Incendies. Few crimes motivate such rage and vigilante justice like child abduction and where Prisoners will tread, few may make the journey without finding darkness within themselves.
During a Thanksgiving get together between two families, a pleasant dinner shared between friends with music and football on in the background. This happy mood (the last of the film's 153 minute runtime) pocket is punctured when the unthinkable happens, both the Anna Dover and Joy Birch go missing. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) ransack the neighborhood looking for their young daughters, finding only despair when neither child is found.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has a perfect case record, every case that has hit his desk has been solved. He arrests a driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), based on the sole lead - he owns the beaten and brokedown R.V. parked on the street the girls were playing on, but a lack of evidence forces Loki to release the suspect. His bullshit radar is going through the roof, but there are no legal channels to keep him. As Loki races to find alternatives, panic takes over the Dover household as all of the police evidence evaporates into a series of dead ends.
Options dwindle as each day ticks by and Keller becomes increasingly erratic in his desperate search for an answer. His faith in civil institutions has failed him and the brunt of finding Anna has more than taken its toll on Keller. If he's going to get answers, then Alex will have to provide them.
Villenueve balances the thriller aspect of the story with large helpings of character focus creating a feature that is both transfixing and more than a little unnerving. Obsession is rarely depicted authentically on film, but when it is done right (the film draws favorable comparisons to David Fincher's Zodiac and Seven) it is hard to watch the brutal lengths that will inevitaby follow. Aiding Villenueve in crafting the story is Roger Deakins, the master lenser behind such works as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford and Skyfall. Deakins captures predator-like p.o.v.s whirling around the characters, but leaving just enough room in the half-veiled shots to let doubt linger.
The lines which we set as a civilized society disappear when we are hit in our homes; just exactly how far will a father go to protect his child? Hugh Jackman, no stranger to rage as evidenced by his six performances as Wolverine, boils over into territory rarely seen before. He very well may have just found the role of a lifetime. Rounding out the rest of the excellent ensemble are Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard as the parents and Paul Dano as the man who last saw their children.
Loki is just as hardened as Keller, but where Jackman's character is resolute in his convictions, Gyllenhaal has doubts in others and himself. Treading through a dark terrain, trying to save others, Gyllenhaal matches Jackman note for note in his performance as Detective Loki. Both characters could have been standard pieces from thrillers like Taken, but both parts are elevated by their respective leading men.
If the haunted portrayals don't keep you arrested in your seat, the story will.