‘Prisoners’ Review

Published 2 years ago by , Updated November 9th, 2014 at 6:46 pm,

Prisoners 2013 Jake Gyllenhaal Hugh Jackman Prisoners Review

Thriller and drama enthusiasts should find plenty of powerful performances and rich story material to make Prisoners an exhilarating and penetrating theater experience.

In Prisoners, a pair of idyllic suburban families, The Dovers and the Birches, are turned upside when their young daughters suddenly disappear one rainy Thanksgiving Day. The night of the abduction, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) scour the nearby woods with the help of law enforcement officials in search of their missing children but as the hours wear-on Dover (a survivalist prepper) becomes disillusioned with investigators’ approach in the case.

Despite the best efforts of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a top agent who has never failed to solve a case, Dover’s frustration reaches a head when the police chief allows a primary suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), to go free. Convinced that Jones is responsible for his daughter’s abduction and fearful that the suspect will skip town, escaping along with any chance of finding the girls, Dover takes matters into his own hands – and at great cost.

Despite over two decades of filmmaking, audiences are likely unfamiliar with Prisoners director, Denis Villeneuve. A French-Canadian filmmaker, Villeneuve is best known for writing and directing Incendies, which was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the 2011 Academy Awards. For Prisoners, his American feature debut, Villeneuve worked from a screenplay written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) and relied on the tested cinematography expertise of industry veteran, and frequent Coen Brothers collaborator, Roger Deakins. The result is an uncompromising (and unrelenting) film experience that succeeds in making smart and effective use of the contributing talent – both in front of and behind the camera.

Prisoners 2013 Jake Gyllenhaal Prisoners Review

Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki in ‘Prisoners’

Some moviegoers might initially dismiss Prisoners as a less-exciting version of the Taken action-drama format, where a father will stop at nothing (including over-the-top chase scenes) to be reunited with his kidnapped child, but Villeneuve’s film is far more concerned with the choices (and the subsequent) fallout of the characters than fight choreography. It’s an exceptionally dark and brooding (while extremely evocative) film that examines the horror of child abduction from a variety of perspectives – not just that of an unyielding father figure. In fact, the Detective Loki component of the story actually serves up some of the more absorbing and impactful sequences.

Certain filmgoers, especially those who actively try to anticipate twists and turns, might solve the mystery before the protagonists. However, even when a viewer is a few steps ahead of the narrative, the onscreen drama never ceases to engage. Guzikowski has crafted a twisted maze full of fascinating as well as believable characters – and, even in spite of a 153 minute runtime, nearly every scene is essential to the plot (not to mention downright intriguing to watch).

Prisoners 2013 Viola Davis Terrence Howard Hugh Jackman Prisoners Review

Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Hugh Jackman in ‘Prisoners’

As mentioned, strong performances help elevate Guzikowski’s written word into keen onscreen drama. Jackman once again proves that, while he moonlights as action-superhero Wolverine, he’s fully capable of holding his own in dramatic character-focused work – where an emotive performance, not muscles or claws, are essential to making the story succeed. Given the subject matter, and the excessive (as well as controversial) actions that Dover considers in searching for his missing daughter, Jackman deserves a lot of credit for managing to walk a very fine line between portraying his character as both shameful and empathetic. There are no easy answers or quick fixes in Prisoners, and the film holds its entire roster of characters accountable for their shortcomings, making it all the more effective when Dover leads viewers into uncomfortable grey moralities without losing sympathy.

Despite the strength of Jackman’s role, Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki will steal the movie for many viewers. The character is instrumental in shepherding moviegoers through the investigation and Gyllenhaal adds a number of unique subtleties to Loki that help differentiate him from similar good-hearted “coppers” that audiences will have seen played-out to the point of caricature. Instead, Loki is established early on as complex, both vulnerable and in-command, so it’s gripping to watch the character (and Gyllenhaal’s take) in subtle moments of triumph as well as failure. In addition to the main leads, the cast is rounded-out by strong turns from Paul Dano as kidnapping suspect Alex Jones  along with Terrence Howard and Viola Davis playing the Birches (parent victims that stand in for the audience and serve as a smart juxtaposition to Dover’s vigilante campaign).

Prisoners 2013 Melissa Leo Paul Dano Prisoners Review

Melissa Leo and Paul Dano in ‘Prisoners’

Moviegoers that are looking for a “good time” at the theater may find Prisoners to be too long or difficult to digest but both the lengthy runtime and sardonic tone are essential to delivering on Guzikowski’s story of child abduction, torture, and consequence. To that end, Villeneuve commits to the material wholeheartedly – without pulling punches or letting his characters off the hook. That said, a few sequences, specifically when it comes to the actions of certain characters, may require some extra suspension of disbelief – which is jarring considering the careful and grounded approach to the rest of the movie. Still, even when the narrative falls into more familiar scenes of tension, the performances keep the moment-to-moment drama sharp.

Prisoners is a violent and disturbing look at the blurry lines between good and bad people – couched in an engaging (and unsettling) kidnapper subplot. Villeneuve’s film should have no trouble pleasing moviegoers who are up for a dark and insightful exploration of human behavior setoff by one of our culture’s most detestable criminal actions. Action fans are better off sticking with the Taken series, but thriller and drama enthusiasts should find plenty of powerful performances and rich story material to make Prisoners an exhilarating and penetrating theater experience.

If you’re still on the fence about Prisoners, check out the trailer below:


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Prisoners runs 153 minutes and is Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout. Now playing in theaters.

Let us know what you thought of the film in the comment section below. If you’ve seen the movie and want to discuss details about the film without worrying about spoiling it for those who haven’t seen it, please head over to our Prisoners Spoilers Discussion.

Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick for future reviews, as well as movie, TV, and gaming news.

Our Rating:

4.5 out of 5

Follow Ben Kendrick on Twitter @benkendrick
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  1. Why did the first girl they found say that Dover was there when their mouths were taped? And then right after that he knew where to go? I think I’ll have to watch it twice to understand how somethings linked together.

    • Because she must have heard him talking when he first came to “tea” with the aunt. That is if the girls were in that room in the house and not the hole underground.

      • Thanks for clarifying that up. I was totally confused at that moment because it didn’t make sense.

        • eh it makes perfect sense, not being smart here but i like to watch films with subs and its great for catching bits that you would miss in complex but brillant films like this one. You should do lie wise problem solved my good lady.

    • When Dover went to the home of Alex Jones- the “supposed” aunt aka the kidnapper had brought the girls in the house because she was lonely after Alex had been abducted by Dover.

  2. This was a great movie. It was like watching a very long episode of Criminal Minds minus the elaborate detective work on the police’s end. The plot itself was interesting because it brings into focus every parents worse fear of losing their child, making the movie very real. Two children from two different families go missing and we get different reactions from both sets of parents. One set of parents (Hugh Jackman and Mario Bello) experience rage and denial while the other set (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) experience grief. Then there is the detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) who is trying to find the missing girls. Sure he is determined but he is also seems like he doesn’t want to be dealing with these parents and he’s so brash with what he does that he doesn’t realize clues until much later in the story (although the audience is given these clues through shots). I think there is an underlying story with Jake’s character (his own past as well as his odd facial tic where he blinks) but it wasn’t explored at all. The tone of the movie is both dark and emotional is successfully told by the excellent cinematography. I was constantly guessing who was the culprit responsible and didn’t see the culprit in the end.

    Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover and it is very obvious that he is willing to do anything to find his daughter even when it’s morally wrong. Jackman gives his usual great performance so I wouldn’t say we’ve seen something new from him but rather just a great quality performance. To me Jake Gyllenhaal stands out as Detective Loki but I would have liked more depth from the character which is a flaw with the story telling and not his performance. He portrays the struggle of dealing with an almost hopeless situation.

    I rate this film 8 out of 10.

    • Dont be ridiculous, the movie was rubbish, completely idiotic storyline, bad acting, with some suspense i will admit but with a confusing storyline and ridiculous outcomes – such as Hugh Jackman surviving for days in a hole, with a bullet wound and no water? The story didnt clarufy who done what and who was responsible for doing things. And as if the retard behind the wall could survive that long anyway and why did the other loser shoot himself and what did he have to do with anything anyway? Seriously this is worth a 2 star at best and thats cos HJ was in the movie.

      • I don’t think he was in that hole for days. Probably half a days at most. The flow of the movie and the timeline indicated as much.

        I did take slight issue with Alex Jones being captive for so long with so food or water. But one thing this movie was great at doing was not showing things just to show them. We didn’t actually see the children abducted, but we know they were. Dover could’ve been sliding in food through that tube for all we know. But it wasn’t a plot-driving element so we didn’t see it. I like that in a film.

        That other “loser” is a mystery. He was a smoke screen. He had an unusual fascination with abducted children and liked to live out fantasies. My guess is that he was a victim of theirs that got away. He was obsessed with the puzzle that was around the dead husbands neck, as well as snakes and he actually stole clothes from the victims because it made his fantasies all the more real and grounded. I wish we could’ve had a better explanation for him too, but it was very left open to interpretation. He was clearly a young man with serious mental health issues.

        I thought the acting was good too. Terrence Howard was a little flat for me. But overall it was a good (almost great) movie. You seem like you like thong spelled out for you in movies and hate it when it a) leaves it open to interpretation or b) leaves you to do the math yourself and figure it out. Your reasons for hating this film are simply because you didn’t like it. There’s no real reason other than the movie didn’t speak to you. And that’s okay. Just don’t try to spout nonsensical reasons that have no base.


      • Yeah, that Taylor kid was one of their former victims. He probably remembered seeing the husbands maze necklace many a’times through his ordeal (possibly during sexual assault) and encountered snakes too, just like Alex.

        And you called Alex a “retard”, he was probably drugged for 20+ years with that s*** she was giving the kids and it stunted his development.

        Sorry the movie didn’t have fist fights, car chases, boobs, superheroes or not enough guns for you.

  3. Im soo confused why did the detective have MAZE tattooed on his hand?? Did anyone else see this?

    • Yes, i agree, so many unclear things in this movie, i thought it sucked badly. Ridiculous storyline and made a mess of what could have been a great movie.

  4. Did Loki rescue Dover at the end, please its driving me nuts.

    • Knowing that Loki has always solved his cases and when he originally heard the whistle blow (3 times) he dismissed the sound as howling wind and turned away. The fourth time he turned toward the sound. Kellar was found!

  5. Did we ever find out what exactly they did with the other children? Assume they were buried in the yard?

    • I assume they burried them in the yard.. because the people at the end were digging for bodies.. but they never really addressed that

      • I think since they said the ground was frozen and they would start up again tomorrow is to lead us to assume they found the rest of the bodies then.

  6. top 5 five best movie of 2013(so far), it kept me on the edge of my feet was wondering why Jake Gyllenhaals character (Detective Loki) used tattoos had some sore of “Masonic” symbols I thought he had something to do with the kidnapping but thats how Directors keeps us audience to focus which was a good idea.

    • Are u serious, give me a break, that movie was rubbish, plot full of holes and ridiculous situations that would never play out, let alone the dumb ending. Hes in a hole, frozen, no water with a bullet wound and he survives for days until …… Wow, it cant take much to impress you if thats called a great movie.

      • Are you serious???? For days? Who says it was for days? And a plot full of holes? For your comments I see that you needed flashbacks and other things that treats the audience as dumb viewers, since you seem to be confused for not being explained EVERYTHING step by step. The movie tells you everything you need to understand the plot, the characters and their behaviors. But it does in such a smart way that it expects YOU to find the answers by yourself, the same way the characters do. And it does great. It’s with your comments that I understand why 99% of thrillers tend to give you every damn answer, flashbacks for you to link scenes and important events through the movie, and a very clear and obvious ending. IT’s just because some people just doesn’t get it.

        But hey, the problem is yours, you know? This is a great great movie, one of the best thrillers I’ve ever experienced. You say “bad acting, ridiculous ending”?? What???? Did you see the same movie? I suppose you’re more a fan of wolverine and Scary movie, right? :D

      • why don’t you take a look at the reviews they clearly say otherwise

  7. Does anybody know what did the dad say to the little girl when they first arrived at the neighbors house? The girl whispered something to him and it sounded like he said, “remember, not until after we eat”. I don’t think she was asking if her and the other little girl could go back to the house yet because she asked again later as if it were the first time.

  8. absolute rubbish movie, no snese in the storyline, complete unreasonable outcomes, confusion over who done what to who and who was responisble for what. Badly written, bad acting, ridiculous ending.

    • Its not confusing at all.
      Aunt kidnapped the kids with Alex who wanted just to drive them in the RV.
      The other guy(Taylor,snake guy)who made a suicide was also kidnapped when he was the kid,same as Alex.
      Aunt did that together with her husband,who was killed by priest(dead guy in priest basement)
      The only thing what is unclear is did they found Dover or not. Since Loki was like “nah,im imagining that”

  9. Just back from seeing this. If your partner suggests going to see this movie, maintain eye contact, but feel around for something quite weighty. Something like one of those cello tape holders with sand in the base. Hold it firmly and strike him/her on the side of the head. If you do it right they will come round eventually. If they can remember what they wanted to do, hit them again. A bit harder this time.

  10. Look Bruce it said in the movie he has in there for like a day then found the next night by Loki cause of the whistle also u must have horrid taste in movies

  11. Great review without any spoilers!
    I have some questions for everyone:
    What were detective loki’s tattoos all about? There’s a black cross on his left hand, strange symbols on his right knuckles. You can see a close-up of them when he’s talking to his captain and looking at the dead suspect’s drawing.
    The suspect who killed himself was leading the police to the find the girls by drawing the necklace symbol for them since the original kidnapper wore it, but why did he break into both kidnapped girls’ houses? He was stealing a sock?

  12. I dont know about the tattoos but as far as Taylor(the guy who snucked into the houses) he and alex were helping the aunt but they were also victims themselves. Taylor was drawing mazes to help the police find the girls. the maze he was drawing was the maze that was worn around the dead mans neck found in the priest basement. He was the husband of the old lady Holly.I believe he was stealing socks to take back to the aunts house. if you remember the flashback Joy had, you could see Taylor was the one running after the girls when Joy escaped.

    • I’m not sure taylor ran after them BC the old lady said that she had forgotten about him until she saw him in the news…right?

    • I’m not sure Taylor ran after them BC the old lady said that she forgot about him until she saw him in the news…right??

  13. Odd ending, has you wondering what is going on. The one thing I didn’t get out of the whole movie was what the snakes have to do with it all?

  14. Terrible film, anyone could have easily figured out the man with glasses was the boy abducted 26 years ago. Like the father said, how can a man with IQ of 10 years old drives a RV? Simple, he can’t! He was set up as a distraction.
    I don’t see how hugh jackman has showed any better acting in this film. This is totally what I would imagine if you had wolverine as a father except he does not have mutant power and his demon in the past wasn’t killing the woman he loves.
    But most disappointingly is this film made total fools of police force. Explain to me how is police unable to detect the blood that the father lost at the crime scene, knowing that there were TWO bullets missing from the crazy lady’s revolver. Very sloppy work at crime scene investigation! and why would a police take a gun into interrogation room with a handcuffed prisoner!
    Most shocking is all the risk taking cowboy style decisions!!
    I can’t believe that detective thought he has got better chance to save a poisoned little girl by dragging her into a car (not bother to take any of drug residue) and drive all the way to ED technically blinded, when paramedics and hospital staffs are only a phone call away to get help ready!!! I am sure police and professional service men are trained better than that to handle emergency situations! A terrible film with over dramatization

  15. How did Dover know where Alex Jones lived after the cops had to let him go. I don’t know, all of a sudden Dover just know’s where the Aunt’s house is when Alex is let go after 48 hours?

  16. why haven’t you guys talked about this on the podcast it was one of the best movies of the year

  17. Loki is the Norse god of trickery and mischief. There was lots of that in this movie.

  18. If you enjoy watching tasteless, tacky and pointless American garbage, then this movie is right up your alley.

    I only got to the part where the pretend-retard was hanging his Aunt’s little dog by it’s neck for fun before I turned it off in disgust.

    Seriously? The writer just HAD to have someone getting their jollies off by hanging a defenseless dog on the end of a lead? Just goes to show the level of intelligence of the bulk of American writers, producers and directors. They could have chosen anything else – sticking pins in dolls, burning photographs – absolutely anything else – but no, they go for the lowest common denominator, as they always do.

    So yes, Prisoners is your typical putrid American garbage – and the entire reason why I almost always make it a point never to purchase or watch anything made by them.

  19. so did they find Keller???????????????????? or did the detective shugg his shoulder again and left lol