Who’s in it? Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones)
What’s it about? After two young girls disappear, both their families and the detective on the case resort to increasingly desperate measures to find them.
What’s good? Hugh Jackman is the best he’s ever been as Keller, an anguished father who refuses to stand by and do nothing while his daughter is still missing. He believes that the mentally challenged Alex has taken his child and her friend — or at the very least knows where they are — so when the police let Alex go after finding no evidence to convict him, Keller abducts the troubled young man and tortures him for information.
The whole thing sounds pretty horrible, doesn’t it? And it is. There is not one (seriously, not one) moment of comfort or levity in Prisoners. Even during the beginning scenes where the two families are enjoying Thanksgiving together, you just know something bad is coming; with his focus on drab colors and ominous nature shots, cinematographer Roger A. Deakins can take a lot of credit for that. The film’s entire point is to examine how far a parent might go to save his child, and the results aren’t pretty. Yet here I am saying that’s also precisely Prisoners‘ strength: it does not let up. It does not coddle you. It will make you look dead-on at the face of a swollen and bloodied captive and feel no remorse, simply because he might know something.
“Do you have children?” Keller’s wife asks Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki shortly after the girls go missing. She might as well have been asking the audience directly, because if you do have kids, you’re going to probably have a different take on Keller’s actions than others might. (On a related note, I used to HATE when people would tell me, a grown and exceedingly empathetic woman, that I “couldn’t understand” something because I wasn’t a parent. Until I became one last year. Now I get it. The feelings you experience after you become responsible for someone else’s life are a thousand times more intense, and that’s all there is to it.) Keller does despicable, unforgivable things in this movie. Except that you probably will forgive him and understand why he does what he does if you have kids of your own.
While Jackman is the standout, the rest of the cast is superb as well. Maria Bello plays Keller’s wife, who is overwhelmed by the possibilities of what may have happened to her daughter and therefore will only let herself believe that the girls simply ran off and are hiding out somewhere. She pops pills and stays in bed, hoping to wake up from what must surely be a bad dream. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the other set of parents, who each have different ways of coping with Keller’s secret interrogation of Alex. And while Gyllenhaal’s Loki was a little too stereotypical for me (We get it, he’s intense! Now can he just stop blinking so hard?), you believe that he wants to crack the case just as much for these families as he does for his own career.
What could’ve been better? It’s hard to do Extremely Dark and not veer into Overblown territory, and Prisoners’ director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) does take the grimness a little too far in parts and drags it on for too long. I also had to question how screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski could paint Loki as such a star detective and then also allow him to miss a huge in-your-face clue as the story drew to its climax. (And this is coming from someone who’s usually the last to experience the “aha!” moment in these types of films.) Having said that, I must give Guzikowski his due when it comes to unforeseeable twists. Prisoners had a few that completely threw me.
The bottom line: It’s hard to recommend a movie this dark, even though it was well made and thought-provoking and has better performances than its genre’s seen for a while. I feel like I’d be sentencing you to some nightmares and at least two and a half hours of pure dread. But if you have enjoyed films like Zodiac, Mystic River or even Se7en and can shake off the subject matter fairly easily after the theater lights go up, then Prisoners may be worth the knots in your stomach.