DVD Release Date: December 17, 2013
Theatrical Release Date: September 20, 2013
Rating: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 153 min.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Actors: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Dylan Minnette

If you’ve had quite enough of I-want-my-family-back! revenge dramas, or if you’re done with crime procedurals that are all about “whodunit” yet without any moral heft to their stories, Prisoners may be for you. The new film from director Denis Villeneuve (helmer of Best Foreign Language Oscar contender Incendies in 2011) is an effective, moody thriller grounded in important religious ideas. Those themes aren’t as well realized as they could have been,  but that disappointment by no means undoes the skillful work on display by Villeneuve and a strong cast.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, Wolverine), his wife Grace (Maria Bello, Grown Ups 2), and their son and daughter pay a Thanksgiving visit to friends Franklin and Nanci Birch (Terrence Howard, The Butler and Viola Davis, Beautiful Creatures) and their children. Well into the day, Keller discovers that his daughter has disappeared along with one of the Birch girls. Older siblings confirm that the kids had been playing around an RV in the neighborhood. Could the RV driver have abducted the children?

The two family men will go to dark places to find out. Keller pushes Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, Source Code) to keep questioning the driver of the RV (Paul Dano, Looper), a mentally challenged man named Alex whom Keller insists is guilty. When Loki refuses to press Alex, Keller enlists Franklin to help extract a confession from the suspect. What follows is an extremely troubling depiction of interrogation, torture and torment that Villeneuve returns to repeatedly. In between, Prisoners follows Loki’s investigation, his pursuit of other suspects, and the debilitating effect the children’s disappearance has on the mothers.

What sets Prisoners apart from most other revenge dramas is its explicit religious imagery and language. Crosses are seen from the film’s opening moments—dangling from rearview mirrors, tattooed onto hands, hanging on necklaces. We hear the Lord’s Prayer and we hear a radio preacher quote from the book of Job when Keller turns on his car radio. The quoted words inform the heartbreaking story that unfolds in Prisoners: “Man is born to trouble as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

Prisoners, scripted by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), is a story of human pain and loss, and of how we respond to the temptation to carry out our own ideas of justice. Keller does so by sinking into anger and his own sense of certainty. He’s clearly obsessed, which makes his character a less interesting focal point than that of Franklin, whose response to Keller's actions and to the grievous disappearance of his daughter is initially much more patient and charitable toward Alex, even though he finds himself pulled into Keller's desperate plan.

If Prisoners doesn't explore Christian ideas as fully as it might have given its imagery and dialogue, it remains compelling. Villeneuve coolly orchestrates several suspenseful sequences and subtly uses sound to create heightened tension. Gyllenhaal, who starred in an even better serial-killer drama, Zodiac, is sympathetic in his dogged, frustrating race against time, knowing that each day the girls are missing increasing the chances that they’ll never be seen again. Oscar winner Melissa Leo (Oblivion) notches another strong supporting performance as Alex’s aunt, protective and tough when she needs to be.

A dark, grim film, Prisoners is also a film with prayers spoken aloud, beseeching a Heavenly Father for help. The story's religious angle—which drops out of the story for long stretches—moves toward center stage as the film hurtles toward its suspenseful conclusion.

Though the words from Job 5:7 heard early in the film explain man's predicament in this life, the subsequent verses point to something else that’s also true, yet more hopeful: "But if I were you, I would appeal to God; I would lay my cause before him. He performs wonders that cannot be fathomed, miracles that cannot be counted" (5:8-9).

It’s to Prisoners' great credit that the film understands verses 8 and 9 as well as verse 7. Prisoners puts the audience through the wringer, but it doesn’t leave them wallowing in darkness and depravity. Instead, it reminds us that God looks out for the helpless (Job 5: 18-19).

When was the last time a mainstream thriller left you pondering such things?

CAUTIONS:

  • Language/Profanity: Lord’s name taken in vain; multiple uses of the f-word; numerous uses of the s-word, a-word and other foul language.
  • Drinking/Smoking: Liquor bottles are shown several time, and Keller falls off the wagon; a priest is shown to be an alcoholic; prescription drugs are taken.
  • Sex/Nudity: Pornography discovered in a home.
  • Violence/Crime: A deer is shot and killed; an RV drives into a tree; it’s said that nine sex offenders live within the area of interest in the kids’ disappearance; a corpse is discovered; discussion of a serial killer’s confession; vigilante justice includes a suspect who is beaten beyond recognition and tortured; gunshots; child kidnappings; a man wields a shard of glass as a weapon; breaking and entering; photos of corpses and bloody clothes; a pig’s head in a sink; suicide.
  • Religion/Morals/MarriageCrosses appear prominently in the film, especially early on, when a cross is seen dangling from a car’s rearview mirror, as a tattoo on a hand, and on a necklace; Lord's prayer is said before a hunting kill; the disappearance of their children strains both Keller’s and Franklin’s marriages; Franklin says he “whups” his kids; a woman says her husband walked out and didn’t come back; a priest is shown as an alcoholic responsible for a man’s death; we hear a radio preacher quote Job 5:7; a man is said to wage a war with God; religious icons and images; prayers ask forgiveness, protection; a woman says she used to “spread the good word” before tragedy befell her; talk of demons; a man thanks God for a friend who “did what he had to do,” and calls him a "good man."

*Questions? Comments? Contact the writer at crosswalkchristian@hotmail.com.

**This Review First Published 9/20/2013