Prisoners is an aptly named film filled with characters who are all imprisoned in one way or another. The central story involves the search for two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerisamovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), who have gone missing on Thanksgiving Day as their families celebrate together. The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally deficient young man whose camper was seen parked in the girls' neighborhood earlier that day. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the lone-wolf police detective who is determined to find the girls.
Subtle hints suggest that Loki is a prisoner of some childhood trauma. He blinks a little too deeply and a little too long, especially when he is stressed. He works alone and is normally calm, determined, and controlled, but he bristles at his captain's authoritarian attitude and is prone to sudden violent outbursts when he is frustrated. Loki has numerous small tattoos on his fingers and hands, the kind that appear to be self-applied. While investigating the disappearance of the girls, he interviews known sex offenders and hints that he knows the pain of their victims. And he wears on his pinky a small silver ring with the Freemason symbol on it, suggesting metaphorically that he has built a wall around himself. Even his name, Loki, suggests that he is a flawed god.
Even more determined to find the girls is Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). Dover is drawn initially as a stereotypical right-wing Bible-thumping survivalist. He "prays for the best but prepares for the worst." He has a basement full of survival supplies, sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower, and recites the Lord's Prayer as he is teaching his son to shoot his first deer. His truck radio is set to a Christian station and a cross hangs from his rear view mirror. But he swears a blue streak and he has a sadistic side that comes from somewhere deep inside his past. He is so certain of Alex's guilt that when the police let Alex go for lack of evidence, he grabs the young man and holds him hostage in an abandoned building where he resolves to beat the truth out of him. For days.
Well, what would you do? the film seems to ask. Wouldn't you break every law, risk every punishment, to rescue your sweet little child? Echoing last year's Zero Dark Thirty, in which torture was used to uncover terror plots, he tells Joy's parents, "We hurt him until he talks. Or they're gonna die."
The scenes of torture are not easy to watch. The rest of the film is. Full of suspense but not of gore, the plot is superbly written and tensely developed. The film is as much about the many prisoners of their past as it is about finding the missing young girls. It exists in the closed universe that is essential for this kind of thriller, and also essential for the central metaphor of prisoners; the characters can hide behind their emotional walls, but they can't escape their setting. There are no good guys or bad guys in this film, just prisoners who do good things and bad things as they try to escape their own private hells.
Prisoners is the kind of film that keeps the viewer engaged long after the credits have rolled and the lights have come up. So much is left unsaid and unexplained about the characters and what makes them tick, yet the clues are all there. Director Denis Villeneuve trusts his audience to figure it out, even if it takes a day or two to exit the maze. It's not the kind of film for lone-wolf reviewers like me, so take someone with you so you can talk about it later. The complexity of the characters will keep you guessing what has happened and what will happen next, even after you learn who done it.