Prisoners has a premise that’s as simple as it is terrifying: Two girls go missing, with no sign of where they’ve gone to or whether they’re still alive. It’s arguably the worst scenario that any parent could possibly face. The predicament is a living hell for all involved, and the film makes us suffer through it right beside the characters. In a good way.
Our stage is set in a suburban Pennsylvania community. We first meet Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) while he’s out hunting for a Thanksgiving feast with his son (Ralph Dover, played by Dylan Minnette). Rounding out the family is Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and the daughter (Anna, played by Erin Gerasimovich). A short while later, we meet Franklin and Nancy Birch (respectively played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their two daughters (Eliza and Joy, respectively played by Zoe Borde and Kyla Drew Simmons). The two neighboring families meet together for the holidays, Anna and Joy disappear without a trace when everyone’s looking the other way, and we’re off running.
On the other end of the spectrum, we have Alex Jones, played by Paul Dano. Alex is a young man who’s been living in the care of his aunt (Holly Jones, played by Melissa Leo) since he was orphaned. He’s socially withdrawn, mentally disturbed, the very stereotype of someone who’d commit a sick crime.
Alex regularly drives an RV that’s been seen in the area, but the police can’t seem to find any hard evidence tying him to the kidnappings. After all, it’s hard to believe that someone with the IQ of a ten-year-old could take a couple of children in broad daylight without a trace. Yet somehow, this same mentally retarded person has the ability to drive an RV. Keller smells a rat, so he takes it upon himself to go all vigilante on Alex’s ass.
Caught in the middle, we have Jake Gyllenhaal in the role of Detective Loki. No, I have no idea why the filmmakers picked that name. It’s particularly baffling, as Loki is the police officer tasked with keeping law and order. Unfortunately, that means solving the case through legal and ethical means while trying to keep Keller’s increasingly sadistic mania in check. Loki is responsible for staying impartial, though he occasionally shows signs of the same desperate madness infecting Keller. This ultimately makes Loki the moral arbiter of the story.
It’s fitting that mazes are a prominent motif of this movie, as the film itself is built like a maze. Though the plot is very quick to get started, most of the running time is spent wandering through various paths, reaching a dead end, then backtracking to follow a different path, repeat for two and a half hours. The effect is that the film takes enough rope to hang itself with. Many of the storylines dovetail in a very neat way while others are left dangling. Some of the plot twists are diabolically clever, others make no sense, some are completely worthless, others aren’t adequately explained, and a select few plot twists are so obvious that I could see them coming 10-15 minutes before the characters did. It all adds up to a film with uneven plotting and a huge amount of padding.
HOWEVER, the film’s labyrinthine structure often works to its advantage as well. When the characters reach a dead end (as happens repeatedly throughout the picture), it means that a promising lead has turned up nothing. And every time they’re forced back to square one, that’s days of precious time lost. The characters are thrown deeper and deeper into despair with every time their last illusion of hope gets taken away, and it’s easy to feel that despair right along with them.
Additionally, the varying storylines make for some fantastic drama, as we’re left guessing which clues/methods will be the most effective at moving the plot forward. It also helps that bad things happening to good people for no reason at all is established as a prominent theme very early on, so all bets on a happy ending are off.
Last but not least, because there’s so much padding, the film has enough room to explore a wide variety of very intriguing themes and motifs. Religion is a great example. The movie deals with God as a protector, God as a source of strength, God as a means of salvation, God as a bastard who doesn’t intervene when bad things are happening, etc. Hell, the film opens on Thanksgiving Day, a holiday set aside for the specific purpose of giving thanks for what we have. And that’s the exact day when Anna and Joy get taken. How’s that for some dark irony?
Getting back to the central premise of missing children, let’s talk about Keller. When we first meet the character, we learn that his personal philosophy is “Be prepared for anything.” However, I think it would be more accurate to say that his philosophy is “never stop fighting.” When it comes to protecting himself and his family, he will always, always keep fighting with the absolute certainty that his actions are perfectly justified.
In this particular situation, it means that Keller is completely incapable of admitting how powerless he is. He always has to be doing something, even if he’s making the worst choice possible. Morals and ethics be damned, he’s going after his daughter, so he’s always doing the right thing and it’s everyone else who’s holding him back.
So Keller commits a number of crimes against humanity that I won’t even get started on. That’s partly because of spoilers and partly because he does a lot of things to Alex that really are unspeakable. Guantanamo Bay would be like a beachside resort to Alex after the shit he goes through here.
Keller is brutally interrogating some kid who may not even know anything, while his wife is spiraling into drugged insanity and his son is powerless to hold everything together. Keller is destroying his family through neglect even as he’s fighting to save his family. He tries to fight a monster by becoming a monster himself. No matter how good his intentions are, Keller has become so blinded by rage that he can’t think ahead to the time when he’ll have to answer for all that he’s done. Even if Anna is found alive and well, Keller never stops to wonder what she would think about all the atrocities he committed in the name of her safety.
Ultimately, I think that Shutter Island put it best: “Which would be worse: To live as a monster, or to die as a good man?”
Hugh Jackman gets the lion’s share of screen time in this movie, but his performance isn’t quite the tour de force I had been led to believe. Don’t get me wrong, he does a wonderful job, but the character was a little one-note for my liking. I started to get a bit of deja vu after the 15th scene of Jackman crying and shouting at someone. There were some rare scenes of variety, however: My favorite example comes when Keller is reciting the Lord’s Prayer, and he stops right at the part about forgiving those who trespass against us. Keller really tries to say the words, but they just won’t come out. Brilliant.
Even so, I was much more partial to Terrence Howard’s character. While Keller has completely made up his mind about doing whatever immoral things are necessary to get his daughter back, Franklin has his toe right on that line. Franklin would die to get Joy back, but he’s very conflicted about tracking down kidnappers by sinking to their level (or lower). So Franklin and his wife can either admit that they’re powerless and sit at home praying for their helpless daughter, or they can get their hands bloody and hope that it yields some usable evidence. In other words, these people are fucked no matter what they do. It’s a damn shame Howard and Viola Davis get so little screen time, because they both do amazing work here.
As for the rest of the main cast, Gyllenhaal does a phenomenal job playing Detective Loki. I’m not exactly a fan of the weird blinking tic that Gyllenhaal gave the character, and I think that the filmmakers may have overdone it on Loki’s tattoos, but Loki is still a wonderfully dynamic character who’s otherwise played with aplomb. Kudos are also due to Paul Dano, who of course knocks it out of the park as yet another withdrawn weirdo. There’s also Melissa Leo, whose ability to blend into a role is easily on par with that of Daniel Day-Lewis, and that’s not praise I make lightly.
On a technical level, I don’t think I have to say anything except “Roger Deakins, ASC.” That credit is pretty self-explanatory, though “Executive Producer Mark Wahlberg” is not. Apparently, he was attached to star in this project back in 2009, and somehow kept a producer credit after so many attached talents came and went. Whatever.
When all is said and done, there’s no denying that Prisoners is very uneven in its plotting and tone. However, I’d argue that the maze-like plot is more of a feature than a bug. The film is much more deep and immersive precisely because it takes the time to examine its various themes and the despair of its characters. Of course, the extraordinary cast helps a lot in the latter regard as well.
It isn’t a movie for those who are impatient, and it sure as hell isn’t a movie for those who want something light and breezy. Instead, it’s a film that presents one of the worst things that could possibly happen to anyone with a family, while implicitly demanding its audience to think about what we’d do if it ever happened to us. If you’ve got the stomach for something that heartwrenching, then don’t let this one pass you by.