“Prisoners,” a crime thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, was one of the early popular hits at last week’s Toronto International Film Festival, earning rave whispers in the word-of-mouth fog that inevitably engulfs the 11-day event.
As if that hype weren’t enough, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve sent a written message to this week’s preview screenings, thanking attendees for their “interest” in his film, which, in his humble words, sounded for all the world like a sincere little passion project he and his pals cobbled out of a shoestring and a dream.
In actuality, “Prisoners” is a big-studio genre picture, a familiar — and undeniably well-executed — example of pulp miserablism in the tradition of “Seven” and its grisly imitators. Given gravitas by Christian imagery and a mood of millennial survivalist desperation, this pulp procedural joins a long line of films that sell themselves by way of the very depravity and malignant moral imagination they pretend to deplore.
But if that’s your jam, hey, “Prisoners” is pretty good. Jackman plays Keller Dover, a Pennsylvania contractor who with his family has joined friends and neighbors the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their kids for Thanksgiving dinner when young Anna Dover and Joy Birch go missing. A local detective named Loki (Gyllenhaal) takes the case, and when a suspect emerges, a battle of wills ensues as Dover — whose motto is “Be ready” and who keeps a gas mask, generators and canned goods in his basement — threatens to take matters into his own hands.
As Dover plays out his long-gestating, ultra-violent revenge fantasies — all the while reciting the Lord’s Prayer, a crucifix conspicuously dangling from his rearview mirror, sermons playing on the truck radio — he resembles generations of vigilante protagonists who engage in all manner of torture and abuse fired by unimpeachable rage. “He stopped being human when he took our daughters,” Dover tells Franklin, who stands for rationality and restraint but is played by Howard as a henpecked, passive onlooker as events take their inevitable, bloody course. The fact that Dover is never given a compelling ethical counterpoint — other than Loki’s lame “I hear yous” and his friend’s increasingly pained looks — is just one way that “Prisoners” betrays its true allegiance, pretending to engage viewers in reflective soul-searching but really giving them an excuse to indulge in vicarious sadistic violence with a righteous conscience.
The reason “Prisoners” has achieved such serious purchase among critics and cineastes has to do with Villeneuve’s pedigree (he wrote and directed the highly regarded “Incendies,” which possessed its own lurid plot pivot) and the fact that it’s superbly made. Shot by master cinematographer Roger Deakins in moody shades of gray and white, “Prisoners” exudes despair and spiritual murkiness; Jackman and Gyllenhaal bring their A-game (and, in Gyllenhaal’s case, an unexplained eye tic) to roles that would otherwise be generic, and Davis and Maria Bello are, as usual, flawless as wives and mothers waking up each day to the same but somehow brand new nightmare.
The emotions the actors bring to bear on “Prisoners” are genuinely wrenching, and there’s no denying that Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski know how to ratchet up suspense and, in one or two scenes, nerve-jangling spook-outs. In that regard, they’ve delivered a grade-A genre exercise — but it’s a genre predicated on specious reasoning and promiscuous, pseudo-sacrificial suffering. Try as it might to entertain serious notions of manhood, evil and original sin, “Prisoners” works most effectively as Hollywood hypocrisy at its most sleek, efficient and meretricious. It’s stylish, high-minded hokum.
R. At area theaters. Contains disturbing violent
content, including torture, and language throughout. 153 minutes.