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