Prisoners is the sort of movie that becomes more baffling the further I get from it, which feels like the exact opposite of what should be the case. Basically, we have here a movie in which damn near every stylistic choice from the director, the crew heads, and the actors suggests an achingly serious consideration of humanity's violent impulses, with several scenes in particular appropriating imagery that is surely a deliberate evocation of the Abu Ghraib torture photos, unless Denis Villeneuve is the most outrageously stupid filmmaker alive, and I don't take that to be the case. The way that scenes are constructed leaves them muted and hushed, the acting is raw and grubby and plainly aims to suggest great ragged emotions that are as destructive to the person feeling them as anything. It is the very model of an Oscarbaiting exercise in social critique and deeply ambiguous character drama...
...Except for the part where the script makes it feel more like a trashy beach read. Prisoners is about two families in suburban Pennsylvania, whose daughters are abducted on a rainy Thanksgiving. One of the two dads in question, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), is a dedicated survivalist with a houseful of apocalyptic gear, exactly the kind of rough man of action perfectly suited to going out and taking down kidnappers with his bare fists, though at first, shell-shocked and despondent like his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their good friends Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis), he's content to let the police do their jobs, in the form of indefatigable Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). And beyond doubt, Loki - a character name much too specific to have no payoff, and it doesn't; though it's no "Keller Dover", that's for fucking sure - gets off to a good start, finding the mentally underdeveloped Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving an RV that the girls were playing on shortly before they went missing. But when Alex proves unlikely to have the mental capacity to understand kidnapping, let alone perpetrate it, he goes free; and this is when Keller goes Lone Wolf, stealing the young man and locking him in an abandoned building, regularly beating him into near-unconsciousness for information. Loki, realising that something has gone massively wrong with Keller's head, now has a two-front investigation: first finding the girls, and second, figuring out what the hell the bereaved dad is up to.
There are clearly ways to make this a brutal, pulverising depiction of dark obsession, as a man faced with an unsolvable problem turns to violence as an outlet for his frustration. Indeed, with the pedigree it has (that cast! that art-house director! that Roger Deakins cinematography!) it's quite inexplicable that Prisoners is very much not that: it is a rip-roaring thriller that's far more concerned with seeding clues about its twist-ridden mystery than with exploring any of the themes theoretically embodied by its characters, or plot. Missing little girls, the constantly-dangled possibility of their gruesome murder looming over every inch of the film, aren't a way into a dissection of the perfect American family broken apart by savagery both external and internal, they're a MacGuffin. One needs only look at the film that Prisoners most superficially resembles, the Gyllenhaal-starring Zodiac, to see how much braininess Prisoners lacks.
And that's not a problem, exactly, because Aaron Guzikowski's mystery-thriller script is pretty well-constructed for a roller coaster ride, starting with a great many random, and apparently pointless asides that slowly coalesce in the final act, a neat trick of screenwriting where apparent sloppiness is revealed as cunning (though the same final act, and the ludicrous extremes of the reveals it carries with, replaces that deceptive sloppiness with actual sloppiness, or at least with wildly escalating melodrama that becomes increasingly unpersuasive, and a truly dreadful camp performance by Melissa Leo). It is, however, tonally mismatched from the film that Villeneuve apparently thinks he's making; overblown melodrama and grimy police procedural thrills can work just fine, but not when you're treating them as nuanced character drama. Jackman, realising this, compensates with a burly performance that goes from "angry" to "fucking goddamn angry" with little room outside, and occupies precisely the B-movie register that the plot requires. No-one else in the cast really fits, though Gyllenhaal, in a physically fussy performance (involving a distracting, then brilliantly distracting, tic of blinking his eyes all the time), plays the workaday cop role to sometimes awesome perfection: his cool readings of repeated lines like "I hear what you're saying" and "I need you to calm down" make him one of the most authentic-feeling movie cops of recent vintage. But the jam-packed cast Oscar nominees and well-liked character actors is, for the most part, doing everything weird. Not wrong, objectively; not unconventional in a way that seems fresh and revelatory. Just weird. Viola Davis, in particular, who has not been given one-tenth of the material that she deserves, and ends up spending a lot of time standing still, out of focus, in the back of shots, except for the big show-stopper scene where she basically copies her own work in Doubt.
Weirder still is the cinematography, which is unbelievably gorgeous. The opening shot, a lingering, solemn pan back from a snowy forest with a deer walking through, sets the tone for the rest of the movie in two important ways. First, because it is sublime and picturesque; not many people can fuck up trees in snow, of course, but not many people also shot Fargo, the best-looking winterscape movie of all time, and also have a claim to being the best living cinematographer on top of it. It's the first of a great many shots in the movie that are so beautiful that you just want to pause the film and never start it up again, just gawking at the perfect color, the lighting, the immediacy of the emotions created by those things. There are shots of cars in the rain at night that make a bid for being the best single frame in any movie I have yet seen in 2013.
Anyway. The second thing that sets the tone is that this opening shot (which, incidentally, includes Jackman's growly recitation of the Lord's Prayer, setting up a theme of religion that goes to so many places involving so many actions by so many characters that it ceases to be a theme at all, and is more of a lazy crutch for the filmmakers to imply gravitas without actually doing the work to justify it) is unbelievably solemn and severe, and that will be true of the movie, too: even the moments that are straight-up jump scares, as when Loki finds snakes in airtight plastic bins, are treated by Deakins and Villeneuve with merciless sobriety. The mere fact that snakes are in airtight plastic bins in the home of a crazy psycho (but not the crazy psycho) tells us that we're in a place that maybe requires a bit more levity and bounce than earnest dramatics, and to its credit, Prisoners is a rollicking old thriller, blitzing through 153 minutes fast enough and tightly enough that it doesn't feel ruinously overlong. But it keeps acting like it wants to be so much more than a rollicking old thriller, and the gulf between that perception and the fact of what's happening onscreen leaves the film much worse off than if it was content just to be crafty cinematic junk food. Too much ambition can be a bad thing, it turns out.