Ah, so this is what a grown-up movie outta Hollywood feels like. They're such rare beasts these days that my first instinct when I encounter one is to do a double-take and look for the foreign indie wizard behind the curtain.
And there he is: The acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, is making his English-language and studio debut with Prisoners. But fair play to Warner Bros. for granting the flick a budget generous enough to snag some of the most interesting big names working today, and for giving it a wide release that means mainstream audiences will have easy access to it.
Now: Everyone go see it. Please. We need to let Hollywood know that there is, in fact, an audience for sophisticated drama for adults.
There's nothing "alternative" about this movie except that it requires nothing fantastical or imaginary to ensure that it is thoroughly gripping and frequently, unexpectedly ugly. Quite the contrary. It is the depressing mundanity of the horrors on display that makes it so intense, so uncomfortable and so brilliant.
It's like this. Two families, good friends all around, have gathered together for Thanksgiving: the Dovers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello), and the Birches, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), and their kids. After the celebratory dinner their two little girls, both around 5 years old, go play outside ... and disappear without a trace.
The police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), home in quickly on a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who drives a creepy serial-killer RV and exudes creepy serial-killer guilt. But the girls are nowhere to be found, Jones protests his innocence, and there's no physical evidence in the RV. Loki has to let him go.
Keller, enraged and grief-stricken, takes matters into his own hands, harassing Jones even as Loki continues to search for the girls and their kidnapper.
And this is where it starts to get really interesting ...
The other superb movie that Prisoners reminds me of, even though it's not really very similar at all, is The Silence of the Lambs. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski has taken a trope of movies about terrible crimes — the exploration of criminal psychology — and expanded it to look at the aberrant psychology that drives us all. Everyone here is a prisoner of their past. The tragedy for some of them is that their past is an inescapable prison. The tragedy for others is that their prison is not inescapable, yet they stay there anyway.
This is a film that it's best to know as little about going in as possible, and I don't want to spoil it. But I have to tell you that for all its other laudable aspects, Prisoners is worth seeing, too, for how Jackman and Gyllenhaal make it a challenge to actually like their characters.
Loki exudes something like a serial-killer vibe himself: He blinks too much, for one thing, which doesn't necessarily sound weird until you see it. As for Jackman, the rages Keller flies into aren't like anything we've seen the actor do before. If you thought his Wolverine was intense ... well, as with the entirety of Prisoners, we are reminded that reality has a much bigger capacity to terrify than fantasy.