Cinematically speaking, Thanksgiving is beginning to have the same connotations as the white picket fences and manicured lawns of suburban America: symbols of disaster or tragedy. In “The Company Men” (2010), Ben Affleck feels his jobless life unravelling at the Thanksgiving table. In “Four Brothers” (2005), the holidays spiral into a tornado of revenge and executions. And now here’s “Prisoners,” a Thanksgiving story so dark and unforgiving you’ll likely remember it the next time the four-day weekend rolls around.
This is Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language film, and comes on the heels of “Incendies,” which he released in 2010. Smaller in scale than that phenomenally succesful film but dealing again with family history and a shattering family tragedy, “Prisoners” feels medieval in the way it’s steeped in a potion of vengeance and guilt.
The two leads — Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal — spend the film wrestling with roles at the very limits of human rage. Their powerhouse performances will leave burn marks on the senses.
The story is set on Thanksgiving Day in a Pennsylvanian suburb, where a dreary gray sky hangs low on the houses primed for partying and celebrations. Two families gather for the traditional feast as they do every year, and all is well until they discover that their 7-year-old daughters are missing. One of the fathers, Keller Dover (Jackman), takes immediate action, and practically forces his way into the police investigation headed by detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). They hone in on an obvious suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is the owner of a recreational vehicle that could have been used to carry off the girls. But he is released due to a lack of evidence and Keller takes matters into his own hands.
The sheer obsession of Keller and Loki to find the missing girls makes the other adults’ turmoil fade like light rain on parched pavement. Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello) sinks deeper and deeper into drug-induced oblivion with each passing hour that brings no news of her daughter, while Franklin (Terrence Howard), the other father, is ill equipped to keep up with the increasingly violent tactics deployed by Keller in the search for their daughters.
Loki is the wild card. Initially he exudes calm confidence and almost wins Keller over, but as the investigation hits a seemingly insurmountable wall, he begins to reveal inner demons of his own and a past that may or may not have lasting repercussions on the case. He also has an excessive and unnerving blink. Can Keller trust him? As the days go by, the answer leans toward a resounding “No” and Keller throws self-control out of the window to interrogate Alex himself.
There’s no one here who’s not a prisoner, incarcerated by their own pain, doubts and past — or in the case of Keller — a Christian faith that flies right in the face of what he’s doing to Alex. Salvation is nowhere in sight.