Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, an old-fashioned “man’s man (meaning Republican, probably) who provides his family with security and love. His family goes over to his neighbor’s, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), for Thanksgiving. Their families have been friends for years. Unfortunately, something tragic happens. Both Dover’s and Franklin’s younger daughters disappear after going outside to play. They’ve been kidnapped! A young, determined detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put on the case, and does everything he can to help the families. He arrests a suspect named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a young man with a low I.Q. whose RV was seen near where they disappeared (the girls were also playing on the vehicle earlier). Even though he resisted arrest, Alex is released from jail due to no evidence being found that the girls were ever in the van. This upsets Dover and he decides to put the law into his own hands. He abducts Alex with the intention of torturing him until he confesses.
And if you think I just gave too much of the plot away, don’t worry. I haven’t. That’s just the first 45 minutes. There’s still nearly 2 hours to go. Also, don’t worry about the entire movie being spoiled in the trailer, because most of the footage is from the first hour. Which is really rare in Hollywood these days.
I think it goes without saying that this movie is very heavily thematically. And it would be very easy for the filmmakers and actors to be overwrought. Fortunately, this movie is quite powerful, and is very raw and genuine. Sure, there are some very emotional moments throughout, but they’re handled delicately. Now, having a daughter around the age of the victims in this movie may have had some effect on me, but yeah… this movie got to me. It made me very uncomfortable and upset….. which means the filmmakers have done their job. This story is very engaging, from the first scene when Dover is teaching his teenage son how to hunt, to the very last nail-biting moment of the film. This is dramatic storytelling at its highest level.
The movie’s first scenes do a great job establishing the family. Then when the kids are taken, the focus shifts to Detective Loki. His character is just as interesting, if not more so, than Dover’s. The film is just as much about him as it is about Dover’s family. Also, the screenwriter does a great job by having you guess who took the kids until the very last moments. Alex is a slow kid, but he’s also got a creepy side to him. And what he mumbles to Dover when he’s released from jail is chilling. But, the writer throws some more possibilities at us too, so when Dover actually takes Alex and starts beating him senseless, the audience is left to wonder if he’s got the right man.
There’s also a great moral dilemma that will be a great conversation piece upon leaving the theater. If the law is unable to do justice, should you take the law into your own hands? Now, normally, I would answer no. But if you put my daughter into the equation, that’s the horse of a different color. I would do anything to protect my child, and if it means breaking the law, well, I might have done what Dover did. The movie is also more than just that, though. It’s a terrific piece of suspense, which brings to mind some other police procedurals like SEVEN and ZODIAC.
There are also a handful of terrific performances too. Hugh Jackman gives a powerhouse performance as Dover. It’s not subtle, but neither is his character. It’s a very big performance, and Jackman gives everything he has. The two standout moments from him for me were one when he threatens Alex with a hammer, and another one which I can’t really talk about, but it’s a heartbreaking scene (not a spoiler, I swear) that could easily grab Jackman another Oscar nomination. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance will most likely be overlooked next to Jackman, but by no means is it any less impressive. His Detective Loki is a quietly determined individual. Even though he’s trying his hardest to find the kids, nothing he does is working, and it’s killing him. I would love for him to be recognized as well, but I always prefer subtle acting as opposed to “Big” acting. Paul Dano as Alex is also great. He talks in this unnaturally high-pitched voice that sent chills down my spine. It’s not a totally one-dimensional performance though as Dano brings some humanity to the role. Maria Mello as Dover’s wife has some great scenes, especially when she suffers a complete emotional breakdown. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis do some solid work as the “other family”, but they weren’t in it as much as I thought they would be. It’s mostly about the Dover’s, though they each have their moments to shine. The only odd duck would be Melissa Leo as Alex’s aunt and legal guardian. She’s a very talented actress, but I often feel like that she’s “acting” when I see her in movies. I never fully see a character. She’s obviously made to look less glamorous (per usual) and her accent felt just a bit phony. She’s not bad here, but compared to everyone else, she kind of sticks out.
The direction is first-rate. Every shot is precise, but it never draws attention to itself. Director Denis Villeneuve uses lots of very, very slow-moving dolly-forward shots. This makes the tension almost unbearable. The pacing is perfect. It’s very deliberate, but it also feels lean at the same time. There’s not an ounce of fat on this film, even at two and a half hours. I can’t think of a single moment that should be cut. The script is very good at keeping the audience guessing as to what is going to happen. And it doesn’t misguide the audience in any ridiculous way like some other films of the same genre do, it just goes in ways you didn’t expect. And in this day in age, that’s not an easy thing to do. The film ends on a perfect note. One could say that it’s an open ending, but I didn’t think so at all. I think it’s very clear what happens, it’s just that it’s not spelt out for you. I like films like this, because it treats the audience respectfully, and let’s them figure out what’s going to happen on their own. I am a sucker for movies that do this.
PRISONERS is not an easy movie to sit through. It’s a hard subject matter to deal with. But, I took my 10-year-old daughter, and she absolutely loved it. We talked about the movie on the way home, and she even noticed some clues and details early on in the film that I hadn’t. God, she’s smart. I love my little film geek.
Anyway, this movie is a well crafted dramatic thriller that will keep you guessing until the film’s conclusion. The acting, especially by, Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and Dano, are Oscar worthy. It’s all directed with precision and care from Denis Villeneuve. Even with Melissa Leo’s phony performance, it’s one the year’s most gripping films. Don’t miss it! ★★★½ (out of ★★★★)
– Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
– Running time: 2hrs 32min.