Written By: Aaron Guzikowski
Directed By: Denis Villeneuve
Prisoners unfolds like a Russian nesting doll. Over the course of the film, each morsel of mystery is deliberately unraveled, until all that’s left is the final detail where we see how all the pieces align. There are moments throughout this movie where you’ll think you have most of it figured out, but then the red herrings and twists pile up. The smart screenplay constantly defies expectations, with plot reveals seemingly answering questions, but in actuality creating even more uncertainty. In addition to being a gripping whodunit, Prisoners is a harrowing crime drama with a complex moral conundrum. Namely, how far would one go to protect their child?
This isn’t an easy film to discuss, as I would be remiss to give even a vague hint of a spoiler, so the following plot synopsis only covers about the first 30-40 minutes of the nearly 2 ½ hour running time. Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) six-year-old daughter and her friend go missing while his family is attending Thanksgiving dinner at their neighbor’s house. Heading the investigation to find the missing children is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a loner who’s perhaps a bit too emotionally invested in his work. The prime suspect in the children’s presumed kidnapping is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a troubled man with the I.Q. of a ten-year-old. The young girls were last seen playing outside of the dilapidated RV that Alex had been sleeping in. A lack of evidence forces the police to set the young man free, but Keller is convinced that Alex is guilty. Keller takes matters into his own hands by holding Alex hostage and sadistically torturing him until he reveals the girls’ whereabouts.
Hugh Jackman gives a fierce performance as a man running out of both time and options. Keller will do anything it takes to get his daughter back, even if that means mercilessly interrogating and beating a man with the mind of a child. As the police pursue other leads, we as an audience aren’t nearly as convinced that Alex is the one responsible. After all, there wasn’t any DNA evidence in the RV to indicate that the two girls were ever inside it. A man with an infantile intellect couldn’t have possibly covered his tracks that well. Could he have? Keller thinks so. Thus, the protagonist and the man you should feel the most sympathy for becomes something of a monster. It’s this moral conflict that is the core of the film. If Alex is in fact responsible, then Keller’s actions are completely understandable and perhaps even justifiable. But what if Alex isn’t the culprit?
Mustering up more rage than Wolverine, Jackman gives a fantastic performance in conveying the distress and anger of a helpless man who feels that he is the only chance his daughter has of being rescued. When Loki assures Keller that the police are doing everything they can to find his daughter, Keller responds, “Every day, she’s wondering why I’m not there! Me! Not you!” We’re devastated for Keller, but the scenes of him putting the pathetic and whimpering Alex in excruciating pain are not easy to watch. As Keller holds a hammer to the boys face, we want to yell out “Don’t do it!” As a father who’ll go to any lengths for the safety of his daughter, Jackman’s no Liam Neeson from Taken. This is a man emotionally and mentally crumbling before our eyes. Keller is a religious family man and upstanding member of his community who is driven to commit unthinkable acts of violence.
In addition to being a hard-hitting drama, the film also serves as an engrossing police procedural as we follow Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki character. We’re introduced to this character as he’s having Thanksgiving dinner by himself in a Chinese restaurant. Donning ominous tattoos that go up to his neck, we get the idea that this may be a man with a dark past before he went straight in a line of work dedicated to saving others. The most consuming portion of the film occurs as Loki investigates the various leads whom may be responsible as opposed to Alex Jones, including a group of registered sex offenders who live in town. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) infuses ingenuity into every turn of the script. I defy you to guess the final twist. Evidence is presented to the point where we’re sure we know what’s occurred, but again, the story is full of red herrings with payoffs that shrewdly alter our expectations. These segments of the film aren’t wholly original and do follow a somewhat common trajectory of police thrillers, but it’s all so well executed by director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) that you’ll be kept guessing nonetheless. A constant burgeoning of bad weather elevates the dark and ominous mood.
If there are any flaws with the film, it’s the 2 ½ hour running time and a somewhat subdued pace. This story could have been told in a terser way, which would have made for a tighter thriller. Some may also have issues with the third act as events increase to levels of implausibility, whereas the first two acts unfold in a more realistic nature. But by the end of the film, the conclusion has been earned and scenes which we believed weren’t particularly germane to the outcome come back and tie everything together.
Anchored by two strong leads in Jackman and Gyllenhaal and substantial storytelling, Prisoners is one of the better mystery/thrillers in some time. While the film may also be a generic police puzzler, the added level of rich character development and the posing of a complicated moral dilemma sets it apart from other films of this nature. As the title promises, Prisoners will hold your attention captive.