The French-Canadian Villeneuve (Incendies) has made a movie that sometimes feels as if it's happening in an alternate reality, one in which moral rot has penetrated the heart of a small Pennsylvania city.
That may sound more like the basis for a horror movie than a thriller, and it's worth knowing that Villeneuve -- working from a script by Aaron Guzikowski -- stirs suggestions of horror into the movie's intensely dour mix.
The title is apt in many ways, not the least of which is the way in which Villeneuve and Deakins depict the American landscape as one imprisoned by gloom, almost as if nature has become an accomplice in some ill-defined decline.
The story could have been inspired by any number of real-life crime scenarios. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a struggling carpenter whose life -- and that of his wife (Maria Bello) -- receives a terrifying jolt when his young daughter is kidnapped along with the daughter of a neighboring couple (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard).
Dissatisfied with the work of a local detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), Keller takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping a prime suspect, a young man (Paul Dano) who hasn't progressed beyond the mental age of 10. After being questioned by police, Dano's Alex Jones is released for lack of evidence.
Davis and Howard gradually slip from view as the script concentrates its moral ambiguities in the hands of Jackman (fierce and uncompromising) and Gyllenhaal (a cop with an eye twitch and a bad haircut).
Believing that only Jones can lead him to his daughter, Keller proceeds to imprison and torture the mentally challenged man, and the screenplay begins introducing a near-barrage of red herrings.
The initial disappearance of the children takes place during a Thanksgiving dinner that's being shared by Jackman and Bello and Howard and Davis. It's clear that the two families -- each of which also has an older child -- are accustomed to spending time together, but as the story progresses, it also becomes clear that Jackman's Keller is the most extreme member of this quartet; he's a recovering alcoholic, a hunter and an amateur survivalist who's deeply schooled in the notion that men take care of themselves and that society -- with its wafer-thin veneer of laws -- cannot be trusted.
The screenplay doesn't overemphasize Keller's dissatisfaction, but he's the kind of blue-collar guy who easily could feel that the system -- however he defines it -- might, at any moment, betray him.
Sporting gray hair and the shuffling walk of a woman aged beyond her years, Melissa Leo plays Alex's aunt, the woman who helped raise him.
Of course, we feel the anxiety of parents who aren't sure that their children remain alive. Of course, we feel the brutal effectiveness of torture scenes that take place in an abandoned apartment building that Keller owns but can't afford to renovate. And the film holds our attention through its 2 1/2-hour length.
It's difficult to discuss much more without spoilers, but know that Prisoners -- though encompassing, well-acted and morally ambitious -- includes a bit of overreaching in its finale, perhaps an attempt to underline the movie's thematic seriousness. at times, the screenplay loses credibility amid Villeneuve's thickening applications of tension and mood.
Unlike more traditional thrillers, Prisoners does not offer a totally cathartic sense of relief. It wraps things up, but the physical and moral dampness that pervades everything feels as if it might never dry.