An early image in the upcoming thriller Prisoners, is the back of an RV rambling along a leafy highway. This is America, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve clearly spells out. Villeneuve lingers on the camper’s layer of grime, and the cracks in the leather of the spare tire cover hitched to its back, foreboding that something is broken in the good old U S of A.
A sense of unease builds as the RV turns onto a quaint residential street, and the ominous tone continues as neighbors share thanksgiving dinner, building until the two families realize their young daughters have disappeared without a trace.
Hugh Jackman plays one of the girl’s fathers. He is a post-apocalyptic prepper–his basement is lined with canned meat and bottled water–and he gives a libertarian pep talk to his son in the film’s opening exchange. Of course, he has difficulty handing over his daughter’s disappearance to the town’s detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal (who also stars in Villeneuve’s Enemy. Both films had their world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week).
“When I first read the script for Prisoners, it was a family drama, but I thought that what was beautiful is that you could also read it as something with a wider view of America (and Canada as well) dealing with some problems right now,” explained director Villeneuve at a press conference Sunday.
Gyllenhaal was eager to expand on how Villeneuve had expressed his vision during filming.
“Denis always referred to the movie as the institution versus the individual,” Gyllenhall explained, the film’s poster behind him, split 50-50, one half his head, the detective, the institution, and one half Jackman’s, the father, the individual. “I think in the film there is a perversion of that institution and a perversion of the individual when neither are speaking or communicating with each other,” he continued. “And, what I think Denis is trying to say at the end of this movie, which is very current and I think does speak to current events, is that when the two things come together there is some sort of ideal. When they don’t and they resist each other, there is great chaos.”
Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s characters butt heads in several scenes throughout the film. Jackman recalled working on one such scene. “We were nearing the end of the scene and it was Jake who said to me, ‘I feel like we are missing something.’ And I said, ‘What’s that?’ And he goes, ‘Let’s see what happens if we acknowledge the fact that they actually need each other.’ And it was a lightbulb moment for me.”
Jackman’s character faces a moral dilemma: Should break the rules of the institution to do what he thinks is right for his family? He explained, “The movie exists in that there is no right answer, that there is always collateral damage.” And it’s Paul Dano’s character that becomes this collateral damage, playing the suspect released by the police, but who is taken prisoner and tortured by Jackman.
One of the film’s producers, Broderick Johnson, brought up another layer of the thriller which resonates with contemporary politics. When the other girl’s parents, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, learn about Jackman’s vigilante torture, they are faced with their own moral dilemma. “One of the more interesting lines in the film is Viola Davis’s line when she says, ‘We don’t know about it any more. We’re not going to stop him. We’re going to let him do it.’ I mean, that was a lot of people’s reaction post-9/11 with a lot of things going on with the government,” Johnson noted. “I think this stands up as an allegory for what people do when they are afraid.”