‘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
TAGS: Prisoners
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  1. Looks good enough for me to watch on Netflix when it becomes available.

    • dude it was realllllly good

  2. 4.5/5 stars… Wow, I really didn’t expect this to be so good, definitely a must watch now!

  3. I have some free time this afternoon so I was thinking of sneaking away to see this but wanted to wait until I read the review here because after I heard about the long run time I wasn’t sure if I wanted to spend close to three hours in the theater but, this has convinced me to go and seems like it’s something I’d love…
    Great review Mr. Kendrick.

    • Thanks. Let us know what you thought!

      • I felt the movie weighed heavily in on its actors to deliver an emotional performance. But they didn’t concentrate on the “why’s” of the case.

        • well, i was confused by the one child clothing buying snake guy…did he escape them then become mentally ill? but i did get that all the child killing was due to the lady and her husband who the priest killed did all this crazy stuff cause God to
          ok their son. only, why did the detective go to the priest’s house? was the priest a pedophile of the type who fall “in love” with their victims? is that why the sex offender priest kill the man after te guy confessed?

  4. Definitely very excited for this. The trailer gave off kind of a “Seven” vibe to it. Probably gonna see this on Sunday

  5. Wow that is a good review!! Wasn’t expecting that, will defo wait for rental or Netflix

  6. Thanks for the good review Mr. Kendricks. Some are predicting another Oscar nomination for Gyllenhaal. What do you guys think are his chances?

    • It’s possible. I could definitely see the film getting nominated for some technical awards as well.

      • Yes I’ve been reading about that as well. Thanks can’t wait.

      • yep, awards like, rubbish of the year, worst acting of the year and worst storyline of the year to name a few. If you think this rubbish is a good movie i feel sorry for you, seriously.

    • He’s bound to get one sooner rather than later. I’ve heard similar whispers about this movie.

      • True read he did really well last year in End of Watch where he received a Critic’s nomination, but have yet to check it out.

  7. I had high expectations going in, made even higher after hearing praise from the TIFF screening. I was still blown-away by how amazing the film was, from the amazing acting, to the great directing, script and wonderful cinematography it is one of the most compelling films I have seen all year and is in my top 3 of 2013 ( and I see a lot of movies). It is a must see and while the subject matter may be too intense for the easily squeamish it is worth being uncomfortable to feel the thrilling anticipation and suspense for this wonderful 2 and a half hour film. Want to see it again but it is such a heavy film might need to wait a week or so before venturing back into the dark recesses of these characters souls.

  8. I’m even more excited.

  9. Wow, seems its better than I thought

  10. This film is really good its gut wrenching and hard to shake. Great review ben

  11. I was in the fence about this but no longer thanks to you, Ben.
    I am in the thriller and drama camp and thankful this delivers on both.

    Ben Kendrick 4.5 = must see. That was easy. Great review.

    • @ Robert Palmer

      Definitely take the time to see it.
      After reading this review yesterday I went to see it and WOW it was pretty amazing.
      After seeing the trailers I thought that this would be a pretty straight forward thriller but in reality it’s so so much more.
      Every few years a movie comes along from out of nowhere and blows away your expectations and Prisoners is that film.
      Gut wrenching, tense, surprising and technically outstanding.

      Also, IMO Jake Gyllenhaal is a lock for a Best Supporting Actor Nomination

      • P.S.
        The sooner you see it the better.
        Over the next few weeks and the more people that see I imagine spoilers will be hard to avoid.
        This will be a film that will garner a lot of chatter because of word of mouth and I’d hate to have it spoiled for anyone.

      • Thanks for your impressions, Kevin.

        I’ve slotted this in for tomorrow afternoon.
        You are right about spoilers waiting too long.

      • Lol, omg u must be joking, the movie is pathetic, ridiculous storyline, bad acting, holes in the plot a truck could drive through, stick to your day job cos u suck at being a critic.

    • Rubbish movie, full of holes and not worth the effort to see, rated at 2 at best

  12. I was looking forward to this from the get-go. Knew it was gonna be good but not this good! Nice, definitely going catch it when I have a little time off.

  13. Some things in the movie lacks logical explanation, e.g. How did the suspect, who drew labyrinth could have a gun while being interrogated in the police office, etc. but movie is interesting and catchy throughout its running time. Good actor’s play.

    • You can see him take the gun off of the officers while they were trying to restrain Loki

    • He grabbed the white officer’s gun from his holster

  14. All I’ve heard is that this is the first real Oscar contender. I’m excited to see it.

  15. I’m definitely seeing it now. Hopefully I can catch a showing tomorrow!

  16. A 4.5 By Ben Kendrick? I have to go see this one!

  17. Wow! Now I’ll have to go see it, I guess! :)

  18. It was a little long and I kept thinking that they needed to solve the crime already, but it was really good. Wolverine did a good job but I felt that the film was mostly about him proving that he is more than just a superhero.

  19. Prisoners was very dark,thrilling, and it went extremely fast! However we sat in the back of the theater, and I had trouble hearing the dialogue. The characters seemed to mumble, and I wonder. If anyone else had this perception. The story takes many twists and turns, and the cinematography was awesome. I want to see it again, and sit closer to the front. Maybe it is just our theater, and it’s sound system. Hoping someone else will comment on the dialogue. Sometimes I feel movie makers do this on purpose. All in all, a great film. The acting was superb! And the ending, OMG!!!!

    • Re: Sylvia Best

      I had the same problems hearing the dialogue as you did and I was sitting 6 rows back from the screen! This became particularly crucial in the final scene when I barely heard “the whistle” one time much less the several times some reviewers have cited. Frankly, I hated the cop-out ending. It wasn’t ambiguous. It was spineless. The guy couldn’t figure out how to end his movie so he opted for the “artistically ambiguous.” In some small way it reminds me of the strange 180 turn Quentin Tarentino made in his “From Dusk till Dawn,” when Mr. T couldn’t decide whether he wanted to make a conventional crime thriller or a vampire movie so he made both in the same film. I may be in the minority but by far the reaction of the audience that I watched “Prisoners” with gasped in surprise, disgust or laughter at the strange closure to this otherwise engaging movie. Finally, if “Prisoners” wins any awards I hope there are no accolades for its sound quality which was abysmal.

    • I had the same problem, hearing certain parts, a friend and I discussed it who had seen it in a different theater and couldn’t hear either. Must have been the fault of the film.

  20. Wow, that’s a high score, probably the highest this year you SR gave, right?

    • The Conjuring and Zero Dark Thirty both have 4.5 (along with Jurassic Park 3D) but, yah, we don’t give out too many 4.5 and 5 scores.

  21. I haven’t seen this yet. The impressions I get from the review and the advertisements, the talents of Davis and Howard are barely taken advantage of. Can anyone confirm that for me?
    That will make up my mind if I see it on the large screen or wait to catch in on Demand.


  22. I enjoyed this movie but the first ten minutes seemed like a made for TV movie. Once I got passed that, I enjoyed the movie. The movie did NOT take advantage of the talents of Howard or Davis. I think the movie was overdone on the casting. It would have been just as good with lesser known actors in the supporting roles. The plot is very good. The cinematography is excellent for the subject matter. The screenplay had some weaknesses in its dialogue. Overall, I do recommend it.

  23. Every person in the theater I sat in solved the case about a 1 to 1 1/2 into the film. I figured it out as the woman was watching the VHS tape of the boy… Don’t get me wrong, the film was beautifully done. But if you can figure out main points in a mystery that soon, then it really shouldn’t take that long to tell. That along with holes in the plot (a suspected kidnapper bore no search of the house that the suspected kidnapper lived) (IQ of a 10yr old with a drivers license lacking even the erge to defend himself is deemed a normal way of acting for a 10yr old)should deduct at least 2 stars (from a 5 star possibility).

  24. After watching it again, I paid close attention at the ending when Mrs. Dover asks Loki if he will find her husband and he says yes confidently. Kind of just weighed this scene more this time with the way the movie ended. Maybe the writers wanted us to know this before it had left us with a cliffhanger.

  25. I saw this film last night i had waited for it to be released with great excitement having read the reviews. The ending was terrible did they save Dover or not. The people in the cinema sat right through the closing credits to see if there was an added bit, sadly there was not. Still don’t know what happened at the end. Disappointing. The acting was exceelent though.

    • Omg! I can’t believe this movie ended this way! Somebody tell me why.. I’m confused. I thought it was a good movie til the end….

    • Well isnt that the point of aa cliff hanger? listen.. i know where your coming from because i too was left sitting there wondering, wtf!? but when you really think about it the ending was GREAT!! if he would of found him then that would of just been like every other movie that just ‘satisfies’ the audience! so the fact of the matter is when dover blows the whistle the first couple times n Loki says to him self “no” and is about to turn away and leave…then hears the whistle a couple more times…then your actually left pretty much knowing that yes he heard the whistle (that his daughter also had in the hospital that dovers wife explained to him about that his daughter loved)and he more than likely found him. instead of showing Loki running to he hole and finding him, that in my opinion would of been cheesy and ruined the whole movie.

  26. Was the priest a sex offender? If not,Why did the detective visit the church?

    • Dover visited the priest because he knew that the priest would have any information on someone abducting two little girls and feeling guilty, resulting in a confession to the priest.

      • Did the priest kill the man in his basement? Why

  27. I agree with everything Adam said and more I saw the movie last night Adam said he had high expectations going in, so did I, made even higher after hearing praise from the TIFF screening. I was still blown-away by how amazing the film was, from the amazing acting, to the great directing, script and wonderful cinematography it is one of the most compelling films I have seen all year and is in my top 3 of 2013 ( and I see a lot of movies). It is a must see and while the subject matter may be too intense for the easily squeamish it is worth being uncomfortable to feel the thrilling anticipation and suspense for this wonderful 2 and a half hour film. Want to see it again but it is such a heavy film might need to wait a week or so before venturing back into the dark recesses of these characters souls.

  28. Very solid movie, to put it bluntly. Gyllenhaal and Jackman were dynamite in their roles. I loved how the movie didn’t need a ton of action to fill out a plot line, all the while, all 153 minutes were necessary for the movie. I never once looked at my watch, and refused to go refill my popcorn! The most compelling thing for me is the shades of grey between moral and immoral and how they flirt with it the entire film. Great review, couldn’t agree more.