It takes only 30 minutes to realize that Prisoners is the kind of film that needs to be seen in the context of its director's other work. Denis Villeneuve, a French Canadian, has directed four features prior to Prisoners. I have not seen any of these films, and while watching his new crime thriller, which represents his first collaboration with the Hollywood system (it stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal), I kept feeling, scene after scene, that this picture is a part of some larger cinematic vision or project. Yes, it has a Hollywood structure, as it is based on a Hollywood-friendly script, but its style is very unusual.
The plot: Two girls disappear during a Thanksgiving dinner, and their parents and the police search for them all over the woods and recession-hit town. Heading the investigation is Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). He is dedicated to his work. He has a weird tattoo on his neck. He enters the web of this crime, which has shaken the community and exposed its dark underground of drunk priests and Walmart creeps. But the frustrating yet equally fascinating thing about Prisoners is that it uses every opportunity, in the early sequences, to produce the feeling that the solution to the crime is unknowable.
As a consequence, the father of one of the missing girls, Keller Dover (Jackman), takes matters into his own hands: He kidnaps a possible—and barely possible at that—suspect (a young man who is, to use the British expression, a bit soft in the head) and tries to torture the truth out of him. But this act of desperation only makes matters worse. And the detective is completely lost. And the town is in the dark. This is not how you like to feel during a detective film. You want someone, usually the detective, to have a sense of direction and an eye for small details that can turn into good clues. All Loki has is a basic work ethic. As for Jackman, he's only got anger. And although the film presents great performances and photography, you begin to wish, particularly in the third act, that a Sherlock Holmes would enter the picture and clear up the growing confusion.