2.5 / 5 stars
If a movie is going to rely on child abduction as its story catalyst, it better have something to offer beyond that. Interesting character development, a deeper cultural meaning, unique filmmaking panache; anything to push the subject matter past the parameters of horror porn. The makers of Prisoners think they’re validating the film’s vicious actions with provocative reactions, but it’s a hollow effort. Despite some courageous acting, Prisoners chooses to wring its audience’s emotions the easy way. The cheap way. (Click on the movie poster for a closer look.)
This includes the kidnapping of two grade-school girls on Thanksgiving Day and the torture of a mentally disabled man (Paul Dano). My impression is that screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) figures he can go wherever he wants as long as his script includes tension, mystery, decoys and who’ll-guess-it-first detective work. It does, sometimes quite well. But Guzikowski’s attempt to fill all those narrative buckets often has a strained, amateurish sense, recalling some of M. Night Shyamalan’s forced shenanigans.
You can’t really fault director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, currently on the IMDb’s Top 250 all-time list). Save for a few useless 360-degree camera moves in Prisoners’ opening sequence, Villeneuve has firm control over the rhythm of the film — it looks and feels like an extremely competent thriller, and will certainly please a crowd that’s been spoon-fed procedurals on TV, where real-world sickness and evil can more easily be ignored.
The story could have been ripped from the plotlines of Law & Order SVU. In response to the kidnapping mentioned above, we get two parallel paths: the hard-working detective (Jake Gyllenhaal, in a focused, fascinating performance) doing his job and a distraught dad (Hugh Jackman) who handles matters with his own survivalist tactics, dragging the other missing girl’s father (Terrence Howard) to participate in his own hell. Multiple families suffer loved ones who haven’t returned home, and a frazzled cast of characters seems loaded with secrets.
When we’re teased with chilling clues, Prisoners really works. The action puts us hot on the trail along with Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, pulling us away at least temporarily from the baseline idea that two sweet girls may be tied up dying somewhere, where we could even be investigating some less despicable crime.
Gyllenhaal brings far more to Loki than meets the eye. He’s tough, but not a bulldog. He’s physically twitchy, but clearly in control, not overselling the stereotypical cop attitude. Gyllenhaal could easily have played Loki very close to his cop character from End of Watch; the fact that he’s created something different here is proof that he understands how to build a role.
Jackman ably whips himself into storms of rage and despair, an exercise that seems far more exhausting than belting out a few earnest, furrowed-brow tunes in Les Miserables. Jackman knows the value of dynamics, when to tone it down and when to get forcefully melodramatic, but he lacks Gyllenhaal’s natural acting masculinity. (You could imagine Gyllenhaal working well in either role.) Maria Bello, as Jackman’s inconsolable wife, lends some gut-wrenching energy to the parental nightmare, and benefits from some of Guzikowski’s better dialogue.
But Prisoners doesn’t come across as an emotional character examination, an approach that might have been best. It’s really a tricky thriller, crossing its fingers and hoping you buy into the tricks. And too often confusing depravity for intensity.