Despite that synopsis, Prisoners barely has time to establish its whodunnit foundation before screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski pulls the old bait-and-switch. Any hope of finding the girls is dismissed by one character incredibly early on: “No-one took them. Nothing happened. They’re just gone.” And I breathed a sigh of relief, because Prisoners then became quite unlike its crime/mystery peers.
For over two hours, the film takes us through the things we should hopefully only ever experience at a distance (if at all) – a family trying to pick up the pieces. I was reminded of the McCann parents following the disappearance of their daughter. After a few days, the media lost interest in the fate of the missing, and turned its attention to the family – and, true to real life, this is where Prisoners puts the meat on its bones.
Almost in the background, the wonderful Jake Gyllenhaal is ordering searches, assessing crime scenes, questioning suspects, while Hugh Jackman is threatening suspects of his own… But it all quite deliberately loses its poignancy after a short while, because the real action is in the complex moral questions Prisoners poses.
More thrilling than most thrillers (which I find are often more thrilling for their characters than the audience), Prisoners is a mystery film that’s easily solved – the script is incredible, the directing is at the top of its genre, and Gyllenhaal is Gyllenhaal, which is just how I like him.