When the screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski was a child, he once drew some disturbing pictures in art class — so disturbing the teacher called his parents in for a talk.
“I think the school was really worried by what it said about my home life,” said a laughing Guzikowski, who in fact had a fairly typical suburban upbringing in Brockton, Mass. “The teacher was really surprised to see my parents were normal, even jolly, people.”
That moment captures the dual influences that Guzikowski funneled into his first produced script, “Prisoners,” a dramatic thriller that arrives in theaters Sept. 20 and pairs the idyll of childhood with chilling notions of desperation and violence.
The movie begins with a simple premise: Two young Pennsylvania girls are kidnapped from outside their loving small-town homes over Thanksgiving weekend, including the daughter of contractor Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). When the local detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) runs into obstacles solving the case, Keller kidnaps and tortures the man he believes did it (Paul Dano), touching off a twisty tale of revenge and ethics, justice and certainty.
Directed by the French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) as a delicate balance between genre picture and character piece, “Prisoners” examines big themes such as the justification for violence — and, in Keller taking matters into his own hands, something less expected.
“I was deeply attracted by the idea that there’s a tension between individuals and trust in our institutions,” Villeneuve said. “I thought it was a very contemporary subject, particularly in America, where there’s a very strong idea of individualism.”
A foreign-language Oscar nominee for the 2010 family-secrets drama “Incendies,” Villeneuve was inundated with scripts after the release of his hard-hitting movie, set in Canada and the Middle East.
He was torn, he said, over whether to make an experimental film or a mainstream Hollywood one. So he opted for both.
The filmmaker first shot the José Saramago adaptation “Enemy,” an elliptical movie about identity that also starred Gyllenhaal. Then he persuaded the actor to tackle the cop role in “Prisoners,” a beloved script in Hollywood circles that had trouble getting off the ground. (Both movies will premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival this week.)
Despite its mainstream mystery elements, “Prisoners” focuses on a favorite Villeneuve theme: how the past influences our future. And despite the film’s genre packaging, the director said he’s long wanted to make a movie that goes well beyond its ostensible subject.
“Spielberg said that ‘E.T.’ was really about the divorce of his parents,” Villeneuve said. “I love that idea. You can make a thriller that’s really about something else.”
For his part, Guzikowski said he was motivated by certain aspects of his childhood — for all its pleasantness, his mom did have a stack of horror novels near her bed that he said put some macabre notions into his head, and he would often hear urban legends about haunted houses from older boys in his neighborhood. He wanted a script, he said, that followed in the footsteps of reveal-heavy modern classics such as “The Sixth Sense” and “Primal Fear” but also raised questions about what ordinary people could or should do in times of duress.
“It’s ‘what happens when you take away something somebody loves and then give them a very narrow path to get it back?’” Guzikowski said.
One thing that was neither on his nor Villeneuve’s mind was the high-profile child-snatching cases epitomized by the recent Ariel Castro trial in Ohio and the Hannah Anderson case in San Diego. But filmgoers may find the comparisons inevitable, and the pair say they do understand the parallels. “The sad thing about doing a movie like ‘Prisoners’ is that it’s timeless,” Villeneuve said.
Hollywood actually began developing “Prisoners” more than four years ago, when the script by the unknown Guzikowski began landing on executive desks. Numerous cast iterations preceded this one, with Christian Bale, Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Wahlberg all attached to play starring roles at various points.
The movie that was ultimately crafted by the filmmakers (“Prisoners” was financed and produced by “The Blind Side” backer Alcon Entertainment and is being released by Warner Bros.) showcases big-name actors in new or newish guises. Gyllenhaal’s complex lone-wolf detective deepens aspects first on display in his beat-cop role in “End of Watch.” And Jackman, for all his intensity, is far more interior than his recent larger-than-life parts as Wolverine and Jean Valjean.
But in some ways it’s the thematic aspects that stand out most.
“I see this story as not just being about children who are kidnapped,” Villeneuve said. “It’s about the idea of imprisonment. Everybody is a prisoner — to their captor, to their past, to their ego. It’s about how in some ways we all feel imprisoned.”