Prisoners opens with the Lord's Prayer, as recited by Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a suburban survivalist teaching his teenage son how to shoot a deer. It's not the most original way to start a movie — heck, it's not even the only movie opening this weekend that kicks off with a deer getting shot — but, as filmed by director Denis Villeneuve, it has a kind of primal solidity, a tribal timelessness.
Such totemic signifiers are all over the opening scenes of Prisoners: the national anthem played (poorly) on a trumpet; "Jingle Bells," the "Batman smells" version; even the Chinese zodiac. We sense that the film's characters live in worlds defined by clear boundaries. The prayers and the songs and the superstitions are like talismans to ward off the unthinkable. "Hope for the best and prepare for the worst" is a common refrain in the film. Even that has a kind of soothing, incantatory quality.
As you might imagine, though, the unthinkable does happen. Two young girls vanish right out from under the watchful eyes of their families: Keller and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). On the case is detective Loki (an excellent and touching Jake Gyllenhaal), a talented, obsessive cop who rubs the prickly Keller the wrong way. A suspect is immediately identified — a dim young man named Alex (Paul Dano) — but, without evidence, is soon let go. Keller, frustrated, kidnaps Alex, torturing him in an effort to learn the girls' whereabouts. Things get slightly more complicated from there.
Methodically and suspensefully, the first half of Prisoners sets up a gripping moral dilemma and efficiently sets the various characters and their competing value systems against one another. Wary of too many close-ups, Villeneuve holds on his characters in groups, like a scientist watching them interact. You may be tempted early on to listen for echoes of the director's earlier, heartbreaking Incendies, an intricate drama set against the sectarian horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, or even his elegantly corrosive Polytechnique, about a Montreal school shooting.
But about halfway through, Prisoners goes stupid. Abandoning moral dilemmas for cheap resolutions, it trades a somber, deliberate narrative style for a wild free-for-all of red herrings and assorted plot devices. The film turns into a serial before our eyes, and a vaguely ridiculous one at that — complete with underground caverns, crates full of snakes, car chases and last-minute reprieves.
Though it plays out over the course of only a few days, writer Aaron Guzikowski's script feels at times like it wants to be a TV series. On cable, the revelation-happy third act, the intricate back story, and the climaxes piled on climaxes would have some chance to breathe. Here, however, the damage is done. What starts as a controlled, chilling portrait of human behavior under pressure ends up as a silly genre exercise — a prisoner of its own contrivances.