Prisoners (2013) / Drama-Thriller

MPAA Rated: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
Running Time: 153 min.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Wayne Duvall, Dylan Minnette, Erin Gerasimovich, Zoe Borde, Kyla Drew Simmons
Director: Denis Villeneuve

Screenplay: Aaron Guzilowski
Review published September 21, 2013

A child gone missing is the nightmare of every parent, and nearly every mother or father has experienced that moment of extreme distress overtake them when their child isn't where they think they're supposed to be.  And if that parent were to realize that this child is indeed missing, likely kidnapped, with the chance that they might even be in jeopardy of being abused or killed, then all boundaries as to what's the decent thing to do fall to the way side, should there be a chance that there is something for the parent to do in order to get back their beloved son or daughter.

It's this deep-seated fear that makes up the main suspense of Prisoners, in which two young suburban Pennsylvanian girls from two neighboring families sharing Thanksgiving together vanish, and the only lead they have to go by is that they were last seen playing near a parked RV that is no longer there.  The driver of the RV, Alex Jones (Dano, Looper), is picked up and questioned by Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal, End of Watch), who aggressively interrogates the man, who has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old-boy, only to have to set him free due to a lack of evidence.  Except that, when Keller Dover (Jackman, The Wolverine), father of  one of the missing girls, confronts Jones, he makes a comment that raises a huge red flag in Keller's mind that he knows more than he's letting on.  As the cops are helpless to do anything more with Jones, and with time of the essence, Keller sets about a plan to get whatever information he can out of the mentally suppressed man and, hopefully, get his daughter back.

It's at this point in the plot that I'll leave off any further details, as everything that comes afterward will potentially spoil the conventional thriller elements of what had started as a fairly gripping family drama.  It is also at this point when you'll possibly realize if the quality of the fine ensemble of actors has hooked you.  If it has not, as pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, you will agree with me, and realize that all of this choice drama is, alas, ensconced in the middle of a fairly bad thriller.  Nevertheless,, some in the viewing audience who find the characters well defined and are sufficiently invested in the mystery might be able to overlook some fairly ludicrous plot points and excessively manufactured dark, gimmicky developments in order to see it to its conclusion.  Not me.  For me, Prisoners is part an engrossing family drama and part a chintzy, lurid thriller, jammed together in a way that lacks conciseness, focus, or ability to avoid collapsing under the sheer weight of the many cheap and cheesy plot contrivances that are far too out of their element to cap off a drama that builds up so well.

Prisoners is directed well, apart from its length, by French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Maelstrom), from a sometimes nifty, sometimes turgid screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), which features narrative twists and turns to keep the audience guessing as to what might have happened to the two young girls, and also who holds the key to the answer of their whereabouts.  The film features a few very strong performances by Academy Award-caliber thespians, especially Hugh Jackman as the anguished father who abhors his own sadism, Jake Gyllenhaal as the blinky cop who becomes so focused on the big picture that he misses some fairly subtle clues, as well as Terrence Howard (The Butler) and Viola Davis (Knight and Day) as the conscientious parents who are conflicted between wanting to stop Keller from continuing his vendetta of vigilante madness, and wanting him to ultimately prevail, should he be able to save their precious daughter.

Villeneuve's film clocks in at a sizeable 153 minutes, which, while it does maintain an interest level throughout, in retrospect, is probably 30 minutes too long given the amount of lengthy scenes of brutality, loose ends, and needless red herrings that exist throughout the film.  There's a good deal of religious symbolism that abounds, from the recitation of the "Our Father" prayer, to one of the supporting players being a wavering man of the cloth, to the ready-built mock confessional that Keller stuffs Alex into on the hope that he'll finally reveal all of his sins before time runs out. There is even a reveal somewhere in the film about one's motivations stemming from a desire to "wage a war against God" that may make a few eyes roll at the sheer absurdity of it. In short, it's needlessly overthought, eventually losing its grip on the tense, realistic drama that slowly reels us in and implicates us in the more provocative elements of torture.

Despite a handful of good scenes, and a couple of great ones, Prisoners emerges as a downbeat frustration, as its need to be the next Seven or Silence of the Lambs in the obsessively symbolic thriller department gets in the way of it being the kind of absorbing true-to-life drama-mystery that might have made it one of the year's better films.  The dramatic tension of children in peril already has built-in suspense; we don't need genre clichés and clunky, faux-poignant family backstory to keep our eyes glued to the screen.  As the pieces of the puzzle begin to come together, we grow ever more disappointed that, while the bigger picture is starting to emerge, it isn't a particularly appealing one.  In terms of a recommendation, it's a borderline call, as the thespians give the premise a very good run for its money, but in the end, even they can't escape the confines of what turns out to be a well-shot but substandard Hollywood thriller climax.

Qwipster's rating:

©2013 Vince Leo