Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover
Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki
Viola Davis as Nancy Birch
Maria Bello as Grace Dover
Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch
Melissa Leo as Holly Jones
Paul Dano as Alex Jones
Dylan Minnette as Ralph Dover
Zoe Borde as Eliza Birch (as Eliza Soul)
Erin Gerasimovich as Anna Dover
Kyla Drew Simmons as Joy Birch
Wayne Duvall as Captain Richard O’Malley
Len Cariou as Father Patrick Dunn
David Dastmalchian as Bob Taylor
Brad James as Officer Carter
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
On Thanksgiving Day, two young girls vanish, sending both their families into a tailspin as local detective Jacob Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to find someone who can provide any information to where they are and if they’re still alive. Frustrated and angry with the inability of the police to solve the case, the girls’ fathers (Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard) kidnap the primary suspect (Paul Dano) and put him through rigorous tortures trying to get him to talk so that they can find their daughters before it’s too late.
“Prisoners,” the first studio film from French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), plays around with various thriller sub-genres that have gone through peaks and valleys of popularity in recent years while filling the film with enough drama so that it never feels like a straight genre film. The result ends up falling somewhere between Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” and David Fincher’s “Zodiac” in terms of its mix of drama and tension, which is not a bad place to start with for this sort of film.
The movie doesn’t waste any time getting to the main plot with the families of Hugh Jackman’s Keller and Terrence Howard’s Franklin meeting for Thanksgiving dinner and the two young girls from within each family vanishing after being seen playing on an RV camper driven by Paul Dano’s Alex Jones. Local detective Jacob Loki (Gyllenhaal) finds and questions Jones, only to realize the troubled man has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old and couldn’t possibly commit the crimes he’s suspected of doing. When Jones is released from jail, the angry Keller stalks and kidnaps him, chaining him to a radiator in his old house with plans to do whatever it takes to get him to talk. With Jones missing, Loki continues to work on the case trying to find anyone who might know the whereabouts of the two girls as Keller and his friend Franklin’s tortures become more extreme.
Roughly a half hour into the movie, once Alex is taken hostage, you might think we’re going to spend the rest of the film watching these two fathers beating this mentally-challenged soul within an inch of his life. If you’ve already watched the trailer for “Prisoners,” you certainly might think you already know what’s going to happen. In fact, and this isn’t spoiling anything, the trailer mostly covers what happens in the first 20 to 30 minutes of the movie and there’s literally two more hours of storytelling where a lot happens. This includes seeming tangents that may or may not have a direct correlation to the overall plot such as Loki, while checking in on local sex offenders, finding a drunken priest with a decaying corpse in his basement. Not knowing what’s going to happen definitely works to “Prisoners’” advantage although it’s hard to write about it without potentially spoiling any of the many red herrings and surprise twists that come to the fore over the course of unveiling the mystery behind the girls’ disappearance.
Another thing Villeneuve has going for him is his terrific cast, each of them being perfectly suited for their respective roles. Keller Dover is an interesting choice for Jackman, not being your typical protagonist because you can’t always, if ever, get behind what he is doing. The film certainly raises questions about right and wrong as we watch Keller’s tortures of Alex escalate, especially as we follow Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki trying to solve the case and find other possible suspects and motives. For the most part, Gyllenhaal’s part of the film is infinitely more interesting as we watch him sneaking into houses, not knowing what to expect, one of the aspects of the film that harks back to “Zodiac.” He’s certainly created an interesting character, covered in tattoos with a persistent eye twitch that reflects a dark past we can only imagine. By comparison, there are moments when Jackman’s performance seems a little false because he often takes things over the top, needlessly raising his voice to create more of an impact in his scenes.
As Keller’s wife, Maria Bello spends much of the film in bed drugged up and crying, while Viola Davis gets a little more proactive in her husband Franklin’s attempts at getting information, although neither actress is allowed many shining moments. On the other hand, you have Melissa Leo, once again almost unrecognizable as Alex’s Aunt, who as with everything and everyone else, seems to play a smaller role in the overall story until later on.
The moody tone created by Villeneuve is underscored by the film’s recurring religious themes and symbolism, right from opening with Keller reciting the Lord’s Prayer. While religion certainly plays a large part in the story, it never feels as if you’re being hit over the head with it even with an organ-heavy score that sounds like it could accompany a church hymnal. As many surprises as “Prisoners” offers, one thing that won’t come as much of a shock is how good every shot and scene looks thanks to Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins.
Somehow the film is able to pull together all the diverse elements introduced during its first 90 minutes into a riveting last actdespite the long running time, you never really feel as if you’ve invested two and a half hours of your time because so much happensthough the way the film ends may frustrate a few viewers, going for the “you decide what happens next” ending rather than resolving everything with a nice tightly-knit bow.
The Bottom Line:
“Prisoners” offers strong drama, suspense and intrigue within a crime thriller that constantly leaves you guessing where it’s going and rarely follows typical genre formulas. Much of that can be credited to Villeneuve’s masterful direction of his cast in realizing a particularly intricate script.