Poll a group of parents and the odds are pretty good each and every one will categorically state their greatest fear is losing their child. One can only imagine the abject misery, horror, anger, and guilt such a devastating event inspires, and how almost instantaneously an idyllic life can be forever transformed into a nightmare. What would we do in such a terrifying situation? How would we react? Would we be active or passive, depressed or outraged? And how far would we go to engineer the safe recovery of our most precious possession? Would we stay within the law or venture outside its boundaries? Would we condone any method to gain information or expect everyone to play by the rules?
'Prisoners' examines such a scenario and all the dilemmas that accompany it, as it focuses on two middle-class families whose youngest daughters go missing one dreary Thanksgiving Day in rural Pennsylvania. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) take their two children to the home of their friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), for a festive holiday dinner. The Birches also have two kids, and while out on a walk, the juvenile quartet notices a strange van parked a little ways down the street. The younger girls are intrigued by it, but the teens warn them away. Later in the afternoon, little Joy and Anna go outside to play, and when they don't return and can't be located, a frantic search ensues. Though Keller was taught by his father to "be ready" for natural disasters and other types of unforeseen cataclysms, there's no way he - or anybody - could be "ready" for something as horrific and unlikely as this.
The families quickly notify the police and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the case. He finds the van and arrests its disoriented, mentally handicapped driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces the suspect's release, prompting a livid Keller to take matters into his own hands. Keller ardently believes Alex has kidnapped the girls, so he abducts Alex and imprisons him in an abandoned apartment, using whatever torturous methods he can think of to wring a confession from the frightened, abused man. Meanwhile, Loki continues his investigation, but several volatile run-ins with Keller put him at odds with the distraught, desperate father, whom he no longer trusts.
Brutal and, at times, difficult to watch, 'Prisoners' subtly explores the depths of the human spirit and how it reacts to emotional, psychological, and physical torment. Crises affect each individual differently, and the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, who also wrote the Mark Wahlberg vehicle, 'Contraband,' gets under the skin of each parent and scrutinizes their respective reactions to not only the girls' disappearance, but also the manner in which law enforcement handles the case and Keller's vigilante - and violent - tactics. Denis Villeneuve's film also looks at the heavy toll the investigation exacts on the dedicated detective whose heart is far bigger than the resources his office can provide.
Joy, Anna, and Alex, however, aren't the only captives in this layered, finely executed thriller. At one point or another, each character in the drama becomes a prisoner of some sort, trapped either physically, emotionally, or mentally by the heinous circumstances. How and whether they bust loose from their private hells forms the drama's crux, and raises this textured film above the standard-issue thriller.
Yet 'Prisoners' takes its thrills very seriously, ramping up tensions with the same conventions as a horror flick. Part whodunit and part howdunit, the movie deftly strings us along, keeping us guessing and tossing in some clever twists and turns while remaining true to the story's core elements. In many ways, 'Prisoners' resembles such investigative classics as 'Se7en' and 'Zodiac,' but lacks the key ingredient that made those two movies such riveting exercises in intellectual suspense - director David Fincher. Though undeniably talented, Villeneuve lacks Fincher's subtlety and stylishness, and doesn't have as strong a script with which to work. At 153 minutes, 'Prisoners' runs a bit long, occasionally feels self-indulgent, and once or twice allows its churning gears to slip into view. Yet after initially grabbing us, the film rarely loosens its grip.
And that's largely due to the gallery of excellent performances. Villeneuve has assembled a top-flight ensemble cast that works together like a finely oiled machine. All the actors file stirring portrayals - any film that features both Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, and doesn't waste their talent, earns big points - but Gyllenhaal especially stands out. Though Loki resembles the character Gyllenhaal played in 'Zodiac,' the actor makes the two roles distinct. His part isn't nearly as showy as Jackman's (or anyone else's, for that matter), but he capitalizes on many small moments, telegraphing his deep commitment to finding the girls and how heavily the case weighs upon him. His scenes with Jackman (who's also very good, but tends to overplay his hand on occasion) crackle with intensity, and his reaction shots are especially telling, lending Loki a humanity that's not often reflected in his lines.
'Prisoners' doesn't quite live up to expectations, but it's still an intricately constructed, highly effective thriller that's packed with emotion and intensity, and poses a number of difficult moral and ethical questions. If you can stomach the subject matter and deal with the rage, you'll find it both riveting and rewarding...and you'll thank your lucky stars your kids are safe.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'Prisoners' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case swathed in a glossy sleeve. A BD50 dual-layer disc, standard-def DVD, and a leaflet with an access code for the Digital HD Ultraviolet digital copy reside inside. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, previews for 'Gravity,' 'The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug,' and 'Her' precede the static menu with music.
Though bleak, wintry exteriors and dingy interiors dominate 'Prisoners,' Warner's crisp, beautifully detailed 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer is often breathtaking, thanks in large part to the exquisite cinematography of 10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins ('The Shawshank Redemption,' 'No Country for Old Men,' 'Skyfall'). (When is the Academy gonna give this guy a friggin' award?!) Exceptional contrast and clarity immerse us in the tense drama from the opening frames, and though the color palette is as washed out as the rain-swept Georgia landscapes that double for central Pennsylvania, bits of bright hues in various costumes pop up from time to time. Only a touch of intermittent grain is visible, and no specks, marks, or scratches sully the pristine source material.
Several scenes transpire at night or in dark interiors, and strong black levels combined with superior shadow delineation create strikingly sharp images that are never afflicted by crush. Fleshtones remain natural and true throughout the lengthy running time, and close-ups spotlight subtle facial details well. No digital enhancements have been applied and no banding, noise, or pixilation occur, although some mild judder during a couple of fast-motion shots momentarily disrupts this smooth presentation.
'Prisoners' certainly isn't the prettiest transfer I've seen from an aesthetic standpoint, but it's nevertheless a glorious effort that thrusts us deep into the heart of this disturbing story.
Top-notch sound augments the 'Prisoners' viewing experience, and the highly immersive DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track rivals the video transfer's excellent quality. Though the rear channels aren't constantly employed, they're in use often enough to provide a satisfying surround soundscape that highlights ambient effects extremely well. From birds chirping to torrential downpours and road traffic, the rears pump out subtle yet distinct and directional atmospherics, while solid stereo separation up front continues to widen the audio field. Even highly contentious scenes remain free of distortion, and strong bass frequencies lend critical weight to both the foreboding music score and adrenaline-fueled car chases.
Accents such as gunfire, fisticuffs, and the crash of a hammer on a porcelain sink are bold and precise, and gentle nuances are also well rendered. Dialogue can be problematic now and then, as mumbled words occasionally get lost, especially if competing with other sonic elements, but that's the only minor blemish on this otherwise exceptional mix. Atmosphere is an essential aspect of 'Prisoners,' and this terrific track supplies a hefty dose of it.
Just a couple of negligible extras flesh out this release. More in-depth featurettes and an audio commentary would have been welcome additions, but are not included here.
'Prisoners' may not be as successful or satisfying as thrillers like 'Se7en' and 'Zodiac,' which tread similar territory in their treatment of a criminal investigation and its devastating effect on those involved, but it remains a tense, absorbing, and often disturbing tale that quickly grabs attention and keeps it transfixed. Distinguished by stellar performances from an esteemed cast that includes Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, and Melissa Leo, 'Prisoners' depicts how people change and often implode when forced to deal with horrific circumstances and unbearable stress. Warner's Blu-ray presentation features a stunning video transfer and superior audio mix, but thin supplements leave a disappointing aftertaste. Though not for the faint of heart (or the kiddies), this involving, well-constructed picture earns a solid recommendation.