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The parade is over. The plates have been cleared. The family is gone, and you’re full. Not just on turkey, mashed potatoes, and whatever cranberry atrocity is traditional for your clan, but also just full up on the holiday cheer. Sure, there’s plenty of funny Thanksgiving TV specials to indulge in, family-friendly Belcher antics to binge-watch, and even Marvel movies to DIY marathon. You could count your blessings by revisiting some of the best entertainment moments of this year. Or you could be hungering for something dark and grim. For this acquired taste, I recommend biting into Denis Villeneuve’s twisted crime-thriller, Prisoners.

Why? Well, for starters it’s seasonally set.

Prisoners begins on a Thanksgiving that no one in this quiet Pennsylvanian town is soon to forget. This is a place of cozy Americana, where neighbors gather together for the holiday feast and bring to the table good manners, warmth, and the freshly slaughtered venison from the deer snagged while hunting. Proud patriarch Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is deeply devoted to his family, doting on his young daughter and intently instructing his teen son on a father’s role as protector, no matter what. So, when his little girl and her best friend Joy go missing — ironically while in search of the “safety whistle” dear old dad gave her — it shatters something inside Keller. As his wife (Maria Bello) crumbles into despair, he cannot leave this case up to the police. So while headstrong hotshot Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) chases down leads, winding and grotesque, Keller tails his own prime suspect (Paul Dano). But this leads him down a slippery slope of vigilantism, vengeance, and possible damnation.

Hugh Jackman roughs up Paul Dano in “Prisoners.”
Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Villeneuve has absolutely stuffed his film with heralded performers, including David Dastmalchian, Terrence Howard, and Academy Award-winners, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo. Each sinks their teeth into a drama that oozes with grief, regret, and almost radioactive rage. In the face of your worst nightmare, how might you behave? This is the question that Aaron Guzikowski’s original screenplay asks, as we watch beloved movie stars stalk, drug, batter, and torture each other. While each performance is strong (even more so on a second watch), the grudge match here is not between Keller and the man he believes took his child. It’s between Keller and Loki, two tough-as-nails men, who want the same thing but take radically different routes to getting it.


In the face of your worst nightmare, how might you behave?

The growling wrath Jackman channeled into Wolverine feels more dangerous in this context. Probably in part because an R-rating means that the film is not restrained by the MPAA’s standards on intense onscreen violence. But Prisoners is not so much visually gory as it is psychologically disturbing. Over the course of a week, we are helpless witnesses to a good-hearted family man who transforms into an impulsive monster in the face of what he can’t control. Though Villeneuve doggedly grounds the film in realistic settings and with a teeth-grit tone, Prisoners is in part a fable about how wild the world can be, even in our own front yards.

Gyllenhaal is the foil to Jackman, delivering a performance that’s still fed by anger, but a colder, more calculating kind. Sure, Loki is the kind of cop who might bend a rule or rough up a suspect in a fit of outrage. But between the two, he seems positively monkish in his calm. Littered in tattoos with a shirt that’s fiercely buttoned-up, Loki is a stark contrast to the flannel and beard of Keller’s masculinity. One is better at keeping his feelings hidden and his demons at bay, but it doesn’t mean he doesn’t understand the struggle. This commonality throbs at the core of Prisoners, whispering a warning about how fragile faith and civility can be in the face of true horror.

Jake Gyllenhaal sits in a car as Hugh Jackman approaches in the movie, "Prisoners."

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman face off in “Prisoners.”
Credit: Moviestore/Shutterstock

Perhaps you’ve recently enjoyed Denis Villeneuve’s ambitious adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Dune, and so you’re looking for another challenging epic to sink into. Then, Prisoners should be that pick.

Beyond the grisly hook of little girls snatched, beyond the powerful performances of a staggeringly stacked cast, there’s also the masterful unfolding of a mystery that’s too tricky to be predicted. Like the labyrinth imagery that emerges throughout, this story winds and weaves, sometimes drawing tremulously close to the central reveal, then seeming to swerve down another dead end. But there is a solution, comprehensive and ultimately alarmingly simple. It was a rush to experience this reveal the first time in theaters back in 2013, and it’s a rush now. Because even if you remember bits of this movie — or even vividly recall its breath-snatching finale — you’ll get caught up in the journey all over again.

So, curl up in a warm blanket, kick back, and let the chills wash over you.

Prisoners is now streaming on Hulu.





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By Editor