Hugh Jackman leads a high quality ensemble cast in the bleak and challenging crime film Prisoners! But can a harrowing abduction story brought to life keep your attention, or is there something more sinister beneath? 411's own Terry Lewis checks in with his review!
Hugh Jackman - Keller Dover Maria Bello - Grace Dover Terrence Howard - Franklin Birch Viola Davis - Nancy Birch Jake Gyllenhaal - Detective Loki Melissa Leo - Holly Jones Paul Dano - Alex Jones David Dastmalchian - Bob Taylor
Itís hard to find a decent bit of complex cinema nowadays. Iím not talking about a complicated plot or characters Ė I mean challenging movies which take your view on certain situations and threaten them into making you the viewer think twice. Itís been awhile but Prisoners looks like itís doing itís best to see where you stand when youíre put in the shoes of a man dealing with the potential abductor of his child and goes from there. From the start, itís nice, engaging, engrossing cinema.
Prisoners tells the story of a nice simple thanksgiving dinner between the Dover and Birch families. Even though, both families have got problems they still find time to enjoy the time of year. Unfortunately both families daughters go missing. With a camper van involved, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End Of Watch) and the local police track down the driver, mentally handicapped Alex Jones. (Paul Dano, Looper) With not enough evidence, the police have to let Jones go and pursue numerous other avenues. However father Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, The Wolverine) convinced that Jones knows where the two daughters are by cryptic clues decides to take the law into his own hands to find out where the girls are before itís too late.
We such a good notable cast, youíd be forgiven for thinking there would be someone to let the group performance down Ė Absolutely not. From the top down itís an A-grade ensemble. Top of the list is Jackmanís Keller. The man is struggling as a handyman type and it reinforces his gruff exterior but we know he just wants the best for his family through his introductory scenes. After the abduction, the man becomes nearly corrupted by the evil of the act and is willing to cross the line in his driven attitude. The sheer intensity of Jackmanís complex, breaking down character is almost believable since we never think how we would react if someone abducted our own children. Gluing performance throughout.
Similarly, Gyllenhaalís Loki is a character suitably saddled with a background as an orphan raised in a boys home, to go with his wonderkid young detective. That gives him more than enough personal reason to save these girls, especially after he lets down Keller early on. If Kellerís intensity is bore out of want, then Lokiís is brought to life by frustration and rage. The scenes where Gyllenhaal goes mental in the police office after another failure in the case are scary, with the amount of understandable aggression.
Terrence Howard (Lee Danielsí The Butler) you would have thought would be similar in his performance as the Birch dad. Not quite. He is shafted massively with the amount of screen time a fairly important character should get. Even then heís not given much to do as his wife (an above average Viola Davis, The Help) is more of a moral anchor to rampaging Keller, but Howard does the best that he can. In the same boat, Mrs. Dover (Maria Bello, Grown Ups 2) doesnít do a great deal although she shows off her acting chops in an entirely believable performance as the emotionally crippled mother who is bedridden and kept on pills to get through the ordeal.
Danoís role as Jones would have been hard to handle for anyone but he nails it. Alex Jones is cursed with the IQ of a 10 year old as part of his mental handicap and does not seem to process the situation or understand the trouble he could be in. Dano plays off this with little idiosyncrasies like singing childrenís rhymes and writing plain handwriting to reflect back on this, but we get the darker side too when he strangles his dog just to see what would happen. Melissa Leo (Oblivion) plays off Alex as his aunt Holly Jones in a standard put upon elder lady.
Undoubtedly Prisoners highlight is a simply succulent theme of evil begetting evil. After Alex is released as Loki and the police donít have evidence to hold him with, Keller kidnaps him and inflicts brutal punishment on the poor, slightly undeserving guy in the vein attempt to get information from the stunted man. He knows how far heís going over the line but when his daughter and his neighbours have been abducted and being frustrated with the policeís slow investigation.
This is what I want from going to the cinema once in a while Ė a challenging piece of film which draws me in with intense emotions which makes me doubt my own values and beliefs. I get why Keller would go to such levels just to find out something, anything, that could lead to the two girls safe return. But could I do it myself? Ooo, thatís a hard one. French-Canadian director Denis Villenevue, in his big Hollywood debut creates a fantastically bleak atmosphere, with the constant pissing rain making it a thoroughly miserable but engaging time in Prisoners which I approve of it being rated so highly.
Then about halfway through it all starts going disasterifically wrong.
We end up getting what resembles a traditional thriller with the odd wander into the ridiculous. At a few points I seriously had to check I wasnít watching Seven 2 with the amount of mad occurrences weíre meant to believe. Snakes guarding security boxes. Mind puzzles. Religious cults. Psychopath crazy types. A massive contradiction to the totally believable first half and whatís worse a lot of it is absolutely pointless.
Without giving too much away, I had problems swallowing the overly extended finale of Prisoners. After a few red herrings, we find out about a poorly explained cult/religious group has kidnapped the kids for their own reasons. The trouble is it contradicts a lot of going on previously in the film. Why keep one of the little girls back? Has she been spying on Jackman and co. the whole time? Did they sacrifice one of their own just to find out more? There is a ton of unanswered questions when you sit down and think about it. Usually, I let a few holes sneak by if theyíre small, but when theyíre part of this big reveal it completely collapses the logistics and plot conventions of the film and ruins all the brilliant work making a tense and topical crime film in the first half.
To be honest, with the ending we get, Iíd say the producers and Warner Brother must have got cold feet with the general proposal for a mentally challenged individual abducting two young girls for a film. I think this is a mistake Ė it would have been much more memorable even if it did bait some controversy. From the second half, a washy forgettable end sequence dilutes any of Prisonersí magnificent ďevil that men doĒ theme you may have formed an attachment with unfortunately.
The 411: We could have been looking at a genre defining movie in Prisoners but through a mental plot choice, to me it loses any credibility it rightfully earned. A terrific castís brilliant performances are wasted after a poor resolution to what was doing a fine job of bringing harrowing events to life. After the journey I was with this film, I was enthralled and engaged, but ultimately left disappointed.