Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a family man with a wife, teenage son and young daughter. His life is upended when his youngest child and her friend disappear. The only clue is an RV seen parked on their street shortly beforehand, which leads Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the vehicle’s owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a young man with the mental age of 10.
As there’s no real evidence that Alex was involved in the girls’ disappearance, the police are unable to hold him. However the fact he ran from the cops and something Alex says in the parking lot convinces Keller that he was involved. Frustrated by the cops, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands by kidnapping Alex and holding him in a dilapidated house he owns. Taking the law completely into his own hands, Keller turns up the pressure on Alex in order to try and force answers out of him.
Loki meanwhile is investigating other leads to find the girls, although Keller’s increasingly strange behaviour inevitably starts to make him a suspect in both Alex and the girls’ disappearances.
Prisoners is unusual for being a studio movie that’s incredibly downbeat, pretty dark, and which isn’t that interested in letting the audience off the hook. That said, I couldn’t help but wonder if there was pressure to soften some of the darker edges. It’s a film that goes to some pretty sinister places and all the way through it feels as if we’re inching towards it truly exploring the meaning of how the abduction has changed the people involved.
After all, Keller has kidnapped a man with learning difficulties and is torturing him, despite the fact he has no firm evidence Alex was involved at all. The movie hints at really dealing with this, such as the father of the other girl who’s disappeared (Terrence Howard) acting like a mild conscience and Loki attempting to deal with Keller’s feelings of impotence over his daughter’s disappearance, which causes him to lash out at the police because of it. However while there are lots of hints and suggestions, the movie never fully deals with it, perhaps afraid of the full implications of making the hero a villain in need of redemption.
That said, it’s still a very good film, with a darkness and intensity that’s sustained throughout its running time. There’s also little doubt that it’s helped by an excellent cast. Jackman is genuinely scary at time as a man on the edge who you really do believe would do anything to both find his child and deal with his frustrations. Gyllenhaal also puts in a great turn as Loki. It’s particularly important because there are times when he’s got an almost impossible job – not least that part of his role is to try and make us believe a double child abduction is essentially being investigated by a single cop. Jake does an excellent job of both guiding us through the investigation and showing depth to his character.
It’s not just the leads either, as director Denis Villeneuve has ensured there are plenty of excellent actors around, bringing an extra sense of realism to events. Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo are all superb.
It all helps to ensure you don’t spend too much time thinking about the slight conveniences and implausibilities of the script, which in less capable hands could have overwhelmed the movie and also made it feel a lot more exploitative than it is. It’s these almost-flaws that mean we’re talking about a very good movie instead of one that’s about to compete at the Oscars.
Overall Verdict: Thanks to some great performances and a dark, intense tone, Prisoners is an absorbing, sometimes troubling movie. However if it could have really dealt with the issues it raises it could have been a truly great one.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac