See itIn Howard Suber’s screenwriting textbook The Power of Film, the UCLA lecturer argues there is no such thing as an antihero. Instead, there “are only characters who act heroically and those who do not.”

If we watch a person drive down a street, see a house on fire and run inside to rescue an elderly lady, we naturally bestow on them the status of a hero. If we watch a person drive down a street, see a house on fire, and respond by looking at their watch, grumbling and racing off to an appointment, he or she is not an antihero (so the logic goes) but simply a person who is not a hero yet.

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That argument begins, if not to unravel, then certainly to enter far muddier territory when a character performs an otherwise unconscionable act because they believe it is in service of a wider moral imperative; muddier still if that moral imperative may not be obviously the “right” one. In other words, if a person believes they are doing awful things because they are acting heroically.

In Prisoners, a superb American bone-chiller from Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), desperate god-fearing Pennsylvanian carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) decides to take the law into his own hands.

The case is personal: his young daughter and the daughter of close friends are missing, presumed abducted. The primary suspect seems guilty enough: a creepy RV owner (Paul Dano) with the IQ of a 10-year-old. Whether or not he’s the perpetrator turns out to be one of Prisoners’ least interesting questions.

A two-and-a-half hour opus of suburban horror that moves from a familiar “every parent’s worst nightmare” MacGuffin into a complex quilt of awful secrets made worse by decent people trying to make sense of them, Prisoners touches on domestic violence, obsession, the mentally ill, ethics of vigilantism and religious perversity.

Shot by 10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins, the film has a damp and eerily beautiful look. It rains a lot and the sets and characters seem to exist in a thick winter chill.

Fusing Deakins’ images with a tremendous spooky score by Jóhann Jóhannsson, Villeneuve creates a nightmarish sister world oozing clandestine activity, as if it’s constantly whispering unutterable secrets into our ears.

Places and emotions exist figuratively and literally behind walls, underneath floors, stashed in boxes and buried in the ground. Many of the people who populate these places are driven by complex sets of competing motivations.

Whenever you think you have the story pegged, Prisoners evades expectations. It’s a terrific reminder how good it feels to watch a genre picture and have no idea where it will be in 20 minutes. If the film starts off like Taken, it evolves into something architecturally more like Chinatown (1974), its twists and turns planks in a complexly arranged network of events.

Hugh Jackman seems headed towards emotional territory certain to over-extend his limited dramatic reach; having cut his teeth on the stage, the former Boy from Oz is yet to master the subtleties of a nuanced cinematic presence. However, his character affords him cause to be gruff and barky, and Jackman’s loud acting is offset by quieter performances from Jake Gyllenhaal (as the detective attempting to put all the pieces together), Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard and others.

Prisoners’ expertly written screenplay, completed in 2007 by Aaron Guzikowski (who wrote it while working full-time at an advertising agency), simultaneously shifts logical and moral boundaries, so the core mystery evolves along with the mystery of how to read the players inside it. Fake-outs, callbacks, twists, reveals and recurring motifs are unraveled with an almost galling flair.

For years it was one of Hollywood’s most famous unproduced works. At various points Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale and Leonardo DiCaprio were poised to star. A regular complaint was that the script was too bleak. Indeed, you won’t see a star-driven Hollywood picture much bleaker than this.

But “bleak,” as Morgan Freeman in The Shawshank Redemption might like to put it, can be a bullshit word. As Prisoners demonstrates, it isn’t an antonym for “enthralling” or “entertaining.”

Prisoners is both, and more: a nerve-rattling achievement in dramatic storytelling and one of the pedigree thrillers of 2013.

Prisoners’ Australian theatrical release date: October 17, 2013. 

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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