If you watch Olympic gymnastics, you have seen it. Â The gymnast is on top of the world, swooping, flipping, soaringâ€”and then next thing you know, to your great shock and theirs as well, theyâ€™ve fallen onto the mat.
I find myself thinking of â€œPrisonersâ€ in terms of that image. This is not a movie that, narratively speaking, sticks the landing. But there is much mastery to be found along the way.
The film begins with a shot of a deer in the woods, and with the sound of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), saying the â€œOur Fatherâ€ prayer. As he finishes the prayer, the camera zooms back Â to reveal that Keller and his son have a rifle pointed right at the deer. Keller is a religious man, a peaceful man, but not without a violent side.
Itâ€™s a side we get to know a lot better as the film progresses. When Keller takes his kids to the neighbors for Thanksgiving, his daughter goes outside to play with their friendâ€™s child and neither of them return.
The police, headed up by Jake Gyllenhaalâ€™s Detective Loki, Â launch a full-scale investigation, but must let a major suspect (Paul Dano) slip through their fingers when the evidence against him is not sufficient. Keller, however, finds the evidence plenty sufficient, and begins to take the investigation into his own hands.
As Keller attempts to extract the truth in surprising and sickening ways, what started as a conventional kidnapped-children mystery evolves into something much weirder and richerâ€”a brutal, frank examination of the lies that the loved ones of the missing tell themselves. Keller becomes convinced heâ€™s above the law; his wife (Maria Bello) harbors the thought that this is all his fault. The other family with a missing child (Terence Howard and Violet Davis) becomes privy to Doverâ€™s plan and attempts to square it with their own moral codes.
This middle section of â€œPrisonersâ€ contains some of the strongest filmmaking Iâ€™ve seen all year. Jackman ventures to courageous and frightening places rarely explored in his career. Gyllenhaal does something very difficult; he makes methodical thinking interesting to watch. Director Dennis Villeneuve shows an impressive command of pacing as he ferries Aaron Guzikowskiâ€™s complex script to the screen.
The real star, however, is the Oscar-worthy cinematography by Roger Deakins. He turns rainy Pennsylvania evenings into dark nights of the soul, and candlelight vigils into frightening plays of fire and shadow.
Yet even Deakinsâ€™s expert camerawork cannot redeem the movieâ€™s final fifteen minutes. After two hours, the movie starts tossing Law and OrderÂ-type shockers at us–and silly, overwrought ones at that. These do not ruin the picture, but they do lead it to drop some of the thematic threads it so carefully built . Because attempts to end with a â€œbang!â€, it ends instead with a â€œhuh?â€
â€œPrisonersâ€ is no masterpiece, but it is a well-wrought character study that uses craft and not flashiness to hold your gaze. It has some bad twists, but it also has some real insights into the tangled workings of the human mind. A-