Villeneuve's probing of these matters might feel on the nose in a lesser film, with lesser collaborators and with lesser actors. But everything is top-notch here, and (most of the time) subtlety wins the day. Jackman is powerful as a father whose protective instincts and grief-fueled rage threaten to undermine his own grasp of goodness. Gyllenhaal is also impressive in a role that is written rather flatly but which ends up being one of the film's most curious. The rest of the cast, including the formidable Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, makes much of underwritten roles.
One of the motifs in Prisoners (which you will know from even the trailer and film's poster) is the maze. The film's narrative is a maze, and its philosophical approach is, too. Is evil ever truly escapable? Is there a way out of the labyrinth?
The film's bleak, if not nihilistic, answer seems to lean toward the negative. Yes, there is goodness in the world. And some characters emerge relatively unscathed, when all is said and done. But if the film has a central point, it seems to be that evil touches all: one person's evil ripples out into other lives for generations on. Families, communities, and nations are infected by sin, manifested in horrific shooting rampages and serial killings, but also in fuzzier compromises like "for-the-greater-good" torture (an issue raised rather pointedly by Prisoners).
Films like Prisoners that are real and sober about sin are a rarity in contemporary cinema. Indeed, most films, like Ron Howard's latest—Rush—would prefer to call sin "vice" and celebrate it as the funny-sad bad boy exploits of a colorful character.
This is not all of what Rush is about, but it plays a big part. The based-on-a-true-story film is about the sex, booze, drugs and high-speed danger of 1970s Formula One racing. It's about legends like James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth), the ultimate embodiment of "live fast, die young" extremism whose playboy image and womanizing ways (he reportedly slept with more than 5,000 women in his lifetime) were consistent with his risky rep on the racetrack.
If Prisoners is about characters trying to protect both their loved ones and themselves from the dangers of sin (both external and internal), Rush is about the thrill of flirting with darkness; or if not darkness, then at least death. For the drivers in Rush, self-preservation is the real enemy; it gets in the way of success on the racetrack, which requires a certain measure of reckless abandon. As one driver remarks in the film when he gets married: "Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Suddenly you have something to lose."
It's not surprising, then, that a person like James Hunt—a born competitor whose passion for winning races trumps everything—winds up being such a sad character. On the surface he's living it up (cocaine, marijuana, buckets of alcohol pre-and-post-race, and multiple women in his bedroom at all times). But he's clearly kept real happiness and commitment purposefully at bay. Emotional detachment makes him a better racer because, like all of his vices, it's all about momentary pleasure, not consequence.