Prisoners, the new kidnapping thriller starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, is one of those movies that is impressive while being watched—but it loses some of its power upon reflection.
By the time I got to my car after the screening, my head started going “Wait a minute … that part didn’t make much sense, now did it?”
I enjoyed the film on many levels. It’s 2 1/2 hours long, and the time went by fairly quickly. The two leads are at the top of their games, and you just can’t go wrong with the visuals when Roger Deakins is working the camera.
But somewhere around the third act, the kidnapping-mystery element starts going a little haywire. Director Denis Villeneuve and his writer, Aaron Guzikowski, are so determined to trip viewers up that the movie traipses over to the ridiculous side. This doesn’t derail the film, but it downgrades it a bit.
Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace, (Maria Bello), are having a Thanksgiving get-together with friends Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when both of the couples’ daughters go missing. Keller’s son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) saw a messed-up looking RV near the house earlier in the day, and he reports it.
Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) is called away from his Thanksgiving dinner at a greasy spoon when the RV is spotted. They arrest Alex Jones (a freaky Paul Dano), a man with an IQ of a 10-year-old, on suspicion of kidnapping.
Loki does his best to get info out of Alex, to no avail. The suspect is released due to a lack of evidence—and Keller goes ballistic. He takes matters into his own hands, resulting in Keller kidnapping Alex—and leading to some rather harsh torture scenes. Dano spends much of the film under heavy gore makeup.
Up until this point, Prisoners is a movie that focuses on the dilemma of what lengths a parent would go to in order to find a child. Keller brings Franklin to the torture chamber, and the two put Alex through hell. The victim keeps dropping possible hints, with no real solid info—so the torture amplifies. It’s brutal, and credit goes to all three actors for convincingly conveying the humiliation, fear, regret and sadism that must go with such a situation.
Det. Loki is in what sometimes feels like another movie; he’s trying to solve the kidnapping while stumbling upon other crimes along the way. Around the time he was uncovering bloody storage bins full of snakes, the movie started losing a bit of its cohesiveness. Still, Gyllenhaal is rock-solid as Loki, a quiet man laced with a bad temper that gets him and others into trouble.
The film is set in an often gloomy, gray, rainy Pennsylvania where everything looks plain and safe—but dark things are happening in those old houses. Villeneuve and Deakins use this setting to maximum effect, and the film is always interesting visually. (Film geeks know that Deakins is the go-to cinematographer for the Coen brothers.)
The film successfully keeps viewers guessing as to the identity of the kidnapper/kidnappers until late in the film. Everybody in the cast behaves suspiciously enough at one point or another, meaning almost nobody can be dismissed as a possibility.
This ambiguity hurts the film in many ways, as the film strays from a core moral message and becomes a preposterous whodunit. The eventual revelation struck me as a letdown—perhaps even a copout.
Stretches of this film will draw comparisons to the 1988 Dutch classic The Vanishing (Spoorloos). Unfortunately, stretches can also be compared to the crappy 1993 American remake of The Vanishing in which Jeff Bridges took a shovel to the mouth. At least Prisoners has a great final moment, so it ends on a good note.
The film contains some of the year’s best acting and best visuals, and it maintains a fierce intensity for much of its running time. That said, I can’t deny its flaws. With a slight rewrite and tighter editing, this could’ve been one of the year’s best pictures.
Prisoners is playing in theaters across the valley.