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“Prisoners” is a film that is in no way a good time. French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s 153 minute excursion somewhere into the territory between David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and George Sluizer’s “The Vanishing” is slow, grim and offers little to no relief through its entire runtime. Despite this darkness, it is surprisingly engaging.
The film opens with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) hunting in the gray woods of rural Pennsylvania. The weather is cold, and Jackman’s voice finishes reciting the Lord’s Prayer just as Ralph brings down a buck with a clean shot.
The father and son return home and pick up Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello) and his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) to join Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), along with the rest of the Birch family for a warm, friendly Thanksgiving dinner.
The slight levity brought by Howard’s comic ineptitude at playing the trumpet is the last iota of light in the movie, however, as shortly afterward both Franklin’s daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) and Anna disappear along with a mysterious RV.
This is where the mystery begins. Keller and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) spend the rest of the movie trying, on separate paths with increasing desperation, to find the missing girls.
The film’s hybrid nature also begins at this point, as the movie focuses almost equally on Keller’s building rage and Loki’s increasing disregard for the rules of policing. The movie is at once a character study of a desperate father willing to go to great lengths to get his daughter back and a chilling mystery that unfolds and connects in a clever way.
A film like “Prisoners” is reliant on its individual performances almost to a fault. Fortunately, Gyllenhaal, Jackman, Paul Dano and a disarming performance by Melissa Leo as Holly Jones all provide enough gumption in their acting to keep the audience interested through the massive two and a half hour movie.
As Loki is off developing the plot, the audience is left to watch Hugh Jackman flex his big, theatrical muscles in a big, theatrical performance that ramps up the anger and the yelling from the time his daughter goes missing. This isn’t a subtle performance by any means from Jackman, but he is very effective at playing a helplessly angry man who’s constantly gripping at misguided hope.
Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, delivers a standout performance as the not-quite-right Detective Loki. He walks the line between the competent policeman and the policeman who has an unspoken demon lurking just beneath the surface extremely well, and he exudes a sense of nervous unease that adds even more to the mountain of tension that is “Prisoners.”
These performances are bolstered by Grace’s prescription-drug-induced haze and hysteria, Franklin’s reluctant consent to the kidnapping and torture of a man with the IQ of a 10-year-old, Alex Jones, played with intense reticence by Dano, and Nancy Birch’s (Viola Davis) chilling role in keeping Alex prisoner.
The religious undercurrent present throughout the movie is brought to light by the cross worn by Jackman, the cross tattoo on Gyllenhaal’s hand, the snakes that appear suddenly during Gyllenhaal’s investigation and the climactic scene in which Holly reveals her motives for kidnapping children.
“Taking children is the war we wage with God,” Leo says as she handcuffs Jackman. “It turns good people like you into demons.”
These undertones help add a sense of gravity to the already high stakes of the movie and give the suspense/thriller side of the film a more chilling, creepier vibe.
The moral question raised at the end of such a long ride is whether or not Detective Loki or Keller Dover is the better man, given the events that surround them. As the events pile up and the plot thickens, neither man can boast moral stability. While Dover tortures Alex (and, in perhaps the tensest moment in the film, threatens to break his hand with a hammer), Loki inadvertently causes the death of an innocent man, though by all rights he appears guilty.
Questioning whether or not each man is in the right is the strongest and most interesting point the film has to make, and the ending of the movie is left open to interpretation in this regard.
The biggest problem with “Prisoners” is pacing. While Gyllenhaal’s side of the film is paced rather well, Jackman’s scenes (and the scenes the two spend together), often feel repetitious or out of place.
During the scene in which Jackman buys a bottle of liquor then talks to Gyllenhaal in his car, we are treated to another round of yelling from Jackman and the word “hey” from Gyllenhaal at least eight times in a row. Scenes with Jackman and Dano also feel repetitive, as Jackman can do nothing but punch Dano in the face and scream “Where’s my daughter?” at him over and over again.
The film may drag sometimes, but two and a half hours is far from a bloated runtime for a film that combines two classic yet intriguing takes on the tale of daughters gone missing. The reveal at the end is clever, connecting seemingly random events from the entire movie in a seamless way, and the movie is creepy as hell to boot.
“Prisoners” has also gathered quite a bit of critical and audience praise, with a score of 73/100 on Metacritic and an audience rating of 89% on Rotten Tomatoes, certifying the film as “Fresh.”
“Prisoners” will not be everyone’s cup of tea. A movie that is extremely slow to build, with a complex moral examination and showing of a bleaker side of Pennsylvania than “The Deer Hunter,” is unlikely to be a blockbuster hit.
Big names, solid performances and good direction help make a movie that can be very unpleasant to watch a hit with audiences and critics, alike.