A gritty and intensely unsettling story of child abduction and obsession.
Tom Glasson
Published on October 14, 2013


There are few crimes more abhorrent or unsettling than the abduction of a child. Even a child's murder carries with it the singular, hollow silver lining of closure for the family, whereas abduction offers only unanswered questions. Grief requires certainty before it can begin, and anything short of that feeds desperation and a cruel modicum of hope. Cruel, because whilst it provides much-needed energy and motivation, hope also clouds reason and fuels obsession, and it's there in that dark space of violent fixation that French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve sets his new film, Prisoners.

Played out in the suburbs of a dreary, unnamed American town, Prisoners centres around the kidnapping of two young girls and the lengths to which their families will go to bring them home. In particular, it follows Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a carpenter and survivalist who becomes fixated upon the primary suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano).

When the police let Alex go, believing him to be innocent, Dover kidnaps him in a moment of desperation and, alongside the other father (Terrence Howard), begins to torture him. It is brutal, deeply disturbing and given none of the glamour or moral justification seen in films like Taken or the 24 series. The allusions to America's war on terror and plain enough, though never so heavy-handed as to be intrusive.

Much like Villeneuve's last film, Incendies (which earned him an Oscar nomination in 2010), Prisoners is uncompromising in its depiction of violence and makes no attempt to shape any character as a hero. With themes spanning the banality of evil, blood lust, compulsion, godlike vengeance, power and domination, Aaron Guzikowski's script avoids whenever possible the use of absolutes, focusing instead on the pacts even the best may make with evil and exposing the falsehood of civility in the face of aggressive self-interest. Even Jake Gyllenhaal's character, Loki, the police officer assigned to the investigation, is presented as a tortured soul and loner whose every conversation ends in abuse or argument.

There is no joy in this film, nor perhaps should there be given its subject matter, but at 153 minutes it makes for a long and exhausting viewing experience. What grounds it are the performances, with Maria Bello and Viola Davis both excellent as the despairing mothers, and Melissa Leo turning in another fine and layered performance not unlike her role in 2011's Red State. Jackman is the standout, however, delivering a powerful portrayal of a man driven to the edge of sanity by anger and despair.


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