Although the film loses some momentum towards the ending, Prisoners is a gripping thriller that shows how far a normal man will go when pushed to the extreme. The movie is hard to watch, but the performances of its incredible ensemble cast make the journey impossible to turn off.Directed by Denis Villeneuve and written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Prisoners features Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano.
Set at Thanksgiving, the film opens with Keller Dover (Jackman), his wife Grace (Bello), their teenage son (Dylan Minnette) and small daughter (Erin Gerasimovich) going to a neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving. Keller owns a carpentry business and the lunch is with his long-time friend Franklin Birch (Howard), a music teacher. Birch and his wife Nancy (Davis) have a teenage daughter and a younger daughter the same age as Anna.
After lunch the two girls ask if they can go back to Anna's house to look for a red whistle Anna lost. Both families live in a nice safe neighborhood so Keller and Franklin both agree, but tell the girls to come right back. They also tell them to get the older kids to go with them. Several hours later, Keller discovers the two teenagers watching television with no idea the girls had ever left the house. Keller rushes over to his house, but it is clear the girls were never there. A quick look around the neighborhood reveals every parent’s nightmare – the girls have vanished. The audience has an idea where the girls might have gone to thanks to a creepy old RV driving around the neighborhood earlier, and the girls wanting to play on the ladder outside its back door. Keller’s son tells him about the incident and the police are called.
The audience is then introduced to Detective Loki (a reserved and intense Gyllenhaal) as he eats his Thanksgiving meal alone in a Chinese food restaurant. Loki takes the call about the abduction and possible RV sighting – which leads him to arrest the RV's driver Alex Jones (Dano). Although he attempted to flee the scene, Jones’ mental state makes it impossible for Loki to truly interview him about the crime or have Jones take a reliable lie detector test (something Loki asks the Dover and Birch family members to do as part of procedure). A forensic review of the RV also turns up no evidence the girls were ever inside or that any kind of struggle had taken place.
With Alex’s aunt professing the boy’s innocence and a media storm around the missing girls, Loki is forced to let Alex free and start focusing on other suspects, mostly registered sex offenders. The evidence might not point to Alex, but an encounter between Keller and the boy convinces Keller that Alex isn’t as innocent or mentally challenged as he seems to be. He is also convinced Loki will never find the girls alive and the only chance they have is for Keller to take matters into his own hands to get the truth.
The film takes a dark turn here as Keller takes Alex prisoner and with Franklin’s help begins to torture the boy for the truth about the location of their daughters. The torture starts off slow with Keller (who also happens to be a reformed drunk and born-again Christian) simply beating Alex, but he is soon forced to figure a new way for fear of killing Alex before he can get the truth out of him. The solution is to put Alex in a small box (not big enough for him to fully stand or sit) and run scalding hot water or ice cold water on him until he finally talks.
While Keller is going to work on his suspect, Loki is searching through local sex offenders for any possible leads to who might have taken the two girls. While questioning a priest, Loki comes across a decomposed body in the priest secret cellar. He also notices a hooded man who flees from Loki during a candlelight vigil for the girls. With no true suspects, Loki also starts to question Keller’s innocence in the missing girls as Keller’s behavior becomes more and more suspicious and some facts of his own past come to light.
The film’s final third act takes some of the suspense out of the story and finally gives the audience a chance to remember this is a movie after all. The truth about what happened to the girls is revealed and both men are left scarred from the case. Not wanting to give away too many spoilers or all of the film’s twists, I won’t go into more detail.
Prisoners features a plot that walks an incredible line between thriller and heavy drama. The drama aspect of the film explores how far a good man will go to get his daughter back, and what lines he will cross for her return. At the same time, the film’s pacing and moody atmosphere provides suspense as Loki searches for his suspect and the audiences is taken into this dark world.
Jackman and Gyllenhaal are simply incredible in this film. Jackman plays Keller with a drive that makes his character almost seem the villain as he tortures Alex and fails to care for his wife and son, who are also suffering from the lost of Anna. Gyllenhaal’s performance is more subtle than Jackman and makes it clear Loki is invested in solving the case while keeping an emotional distance from it all. It is believable that Keller wouldn’t have faith in Loki because Loki often seems annoyed at having to deal with Keller’s outbursts and questions.
Although his role becomes more and more limited as he is tortured, Dano provides a perfect performance as Alex Jones. It is impossible for the audience to know just how involved he was in the disappearance and just how mentally-challenged he really is. Dano’s ambiguity keeps the audience from ever being fully behind Keller’s actions and his unwavering belief Alex knows more than he is saying.
The Blu-ray comes with some great bonus materials that take you into the making of the movie and features interviews with the cast and crew.
Prisoners has some flaws and the ending was a tad lacking for the journey it took to get there. Still, the film features incredible performances from its two main stars and a plot that keeps you glued to what is happening on the screen – even if you want to look away.