Denis Villeneuve is a director whose work I’ve been meaning to explore more thoroughly, as I quite enjoyed Arrival and Sicario. Prisoners (2013) did nothing to dissuade me from watching more of his stuff, although the subject matter is harsh and often difficult to endure. Set in rural Pennsylvania, Prisoners involves the disappearance of two young girls and the investigations that are launched to find them. The case falls to a hotshot young detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has never failed to solve a case. But this one will prove especially difficult, made all the worse by the abusive and impatient response of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), one of the daughters’ parents. Keller’s prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the inscrutable, mentally challenged young man whose RV the girls were playing next to shortly before their Thanksgiving Day disappearance. While there’s no evidence of Alex’s involvement, Keller is convinced Alex knows something, and takes matters into his own hands, even as Loki pursues other leads to solve the case.
Prisoners is a meaty mystery with a neat, intricate construction, even as its unpredictable beats keeps the viewer off-balance. It builds slowly at first, steering the investigation in unexpected directions — so much so, in fact, that it doesn’t entirely feel like the pieces are coming together until late in the game. Then, the plot components slot into place, bringing the mystery to an uncommonly satisfying resolution. It should be noted that there are many scenes of torture and toxic masculinity, mostly from Keller, and while the film certainly doesn’t condone that behavior — indeed, it’s part of the film’s critique — that doesn’t make it any easier to watch, not does Jackman’s exceptional performance, which makes the behavior all the more convincing. But if you can stomach the content, there’s a fulfilling dark mystery here, a Rust Belt noir with great acting from the entire cast, which also includes Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terence Howard, and a perfectly utilized Melissa Leo. It’s a brutal story, but extremely well executed, ending on a memorable, resounding note.