The setup is quick and upsetting. It's Thanksgiving as two families--the Dovers and the Birches who live down the street from each other--get together to celebrate. Their six-year-old daughters, playmates and friends, head back to the Keller Dover house but don't return. A suspicious RV was parked on the street, but that's just the beginning of the nightmare that unfolds in this Pennsylvania suburb.
Husbands Deller and Franklin become desperate; wives Nancy and Grace are devastated; and Detective Loki pursues every lead, finding that it's not only the kidnapper who harbors horrifying, if understandable, reactions. The plot confronts our darkest impulses.
Villeneuve, the director of the gut-wrenching "Polytechnique" (2009) and the Oscar-nominated "Incendies" (2010), is among the most theoretically interesting filmmakers. He integrates and studies the submerged violence in all his characters. He traces the ripple effects of cruelty and sadism. But he refuses to provide expected, conventional catharsis. Almost everything good that happens occurs off-screen, which leads me to conclude that Villeneuve hates violence so completely that he resists providing any release from its ugliness and its toxic infection of all those it touches. As he said at a Telluride Q&A, he wants to show "the way violence spreads in families and characters."
Fearless acting by Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, and Paul Dano makes the impact powerful. In addition, the cold, stormy, depressive weather contributes another layer of tension, as does the minimal camera movement and subdued lighting crafted by cinematographer Roger Deakins. "Prisoners" is not only a first-rate thriller; it also holds the mirror up to our fascination with but the horror of violence, an enthrallment that Villeneuve interrogates in profound ways. At various cinemas. Check your local listings.