Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners begins with a foreboding prologue in which we heard the Lord’s Prayer as suburban dad Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) helps his teenage son track and shoot a deer from a distance. Photographed with quiet, slow zooms and a wintry ambience (cinematographer Roger Deakins has never been better), this cryptic scene sets the tone for the tense, contemplative, and oddly beautiful 150 minutes that follow in what is one of the year’s most surprising films.
Prisoners is about imprisonment on a number of levels. First, the literal sense: in addition to the young kidnapping victims around which the plot revolves, at least four other major characters find themselves imprisoned at various points in the film. The physical imprisonment of one character in the film’s genius final shot is especially jarring.
But the film is also about how we are prisoners in other ways: prisoners to our notion of happiness; prisoners to our job or cause (see Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki); prisoners to our need for retributive justice and—perhaps most importantly—prisoners to our own guilt and shame.
The film suggests that, in a sense, human existence is one big imprisonment. We’re constantly locking up our depravity and protecting ourselves from ourselves. We try to keep our more sordid tendencies hidden and our propensity for evil at bay. But this is easier said than done. In one sequence, snakes escape from formerly locked-tight containers—and similarly, evil is always desperate to break free and roam wild. It wants to infect the good. Part of the power of Prisoners is that it depicts the insidious tactics of evil in a manner that feels utterly close to home. It’s not just about big, bad, nightmarish villains. It’s about the little ways that all of us get infected.
Read the rest of my review of Prisoners here.