Synopsis: How far would you go to protect your family? Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman)
is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with
her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV
that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake
Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release. As
the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic
Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. But just how far will this
desperate father go to protect his family?
Release Date: September 20, 2013 MPAA Rating: PG-13
Genre(s): Drama, Thriller
Hollywood mysteries are not what they used to be. The days of Sam Spade, private detective, are long gone, and film noir offerings have been replaced by dark films with more grit and realism; Prisoners fits this mold very well.
Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman (Wolverine from the X-Men movies) as Keller Dover, a Pennsylvania carpenter who, along with his wife, Grace (A History of Violence‘s Maria Bello), and their two children, is enjoying Thanksgiving Day at the home of their family friends, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrance Howard from The Butler and The Help‘s Viola Davis). When the two young daughters from the families go out to play and fail to return, panic sets in. Keller’s teenage son, Ralph (Let Me In‘s Dylan Minnette), remembers seeing an old RV parked on the street, and it doesn’t take long for Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal from End Of Watch) to track the vehicle down and arrest the driver, a mentally disabled young man named Alex Jones (There Will Be Blood‘s Paul Dano), but a search of the RV turns up no forensic evidence of the girls and the suspect has to be released. Believing that Alex must know something about the kidnapping of his little girl, Keller abducts him and holds him captive in an abandoned apartment building, sporadically torturing the boy in an effort to extract information from him. Knowing that time is running out for the girls, Keller continues with his plan to find out where his daughter is, while Detective Loki divides his time between searching for the girls and trying to figure out what Keller is up to.
Not exactly the feel-good hit of the year, Prisoners was written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) and directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies). It is a very dark and disturbing story along the lines of Se7en or The Silence of the Lambs, walking the line between hard-boiled mystery and flat-out horror flick. The narrative unfolds slowly and deliberately, taking the viewer on a journey full of twists, turns, and red herrings that will anger, frighten, and shock the audience. Prisoners documents every parent’s nightmare, and it does so chillingly and effectively.
A big part of what makes Prisoners so intriguing is the moral ambiguity of the characters. It seems as if every character aside from the little girls is an antagonist. When it comes to the abduction and beating of Alex, Keller is morally and legally wrong, yet the father’s desperation to find his daughter seems to excuse his atrocious actions in the audience’s mind. On the other hand, Detective Loki’s attitude and appearance makes him, at least initially, an extremely unlikable character even though he is as close to a true protagonist as the film has. The viewer is similarly torn by the portrayal of Alex; because of Keller’s ruthless torture tactics, the simple-minded boy elicits sympathy from the audience, even when it is clear that he knows more about what is happening than he is letting on. The entire narrative takes place in the grey area between right and wrong, with no one character falling squarely on either side.
Prisoners is successful on both a creative level and a technical level. The story is well written and the cast is top-notch. The film was shot by experienced director of photography Roger A. Deakins (who, in addition to shooting most of the Coen Brothers more well-known movies, also did Skyfall and The Shawshank Redemption), and it looks great. Although set in rural Pennsylvania, the film was shot in Georgia, and the locations are perfect for the Anytown U.S.A. theme of the film, adding to the notion of ‘It Can Happen To You’ that is present in the film. The subject matter is unsettling, and Prisoners presents it in a way that is unflinching. All of the elements of Prisoners come together to make it an unforgettable experience, whether the viewer wants to see it or not.
Prisoners is a tough film, and it may not be suitable for everyone. The content is difficult, even for those who do not have children. At two and a half hours, it’s also a long film, and it feels long; it’s not boring or uninteresting, but it’s a slow-burning exercise in suspense and drama. There’s really nothing that could be excised without sacrificing the narrative. In fact, without giving away any secrets, the conclusion leaves the viewer wishing it was about five minutes longer. Prisoners is very well made, and audiences with iron-clad attention spans, and with stomachs to match, will enjoy it very much.
There are some real tour-de-force performances in Prisoners. Of particular note is Paul Dano, who has played some quirky and unsettling characters in his career, but his portrayal of the childlike victim of Keller’s rage is both creepy and sympathetic. Maria Bello is great as the mother of the missing girl, capturing the rational depression of a woman whose flesh and blood has been stolen from her. Jake Gyllenhaal demonstrates emotional precision as Detective Loki, torn between the laws that he is sworn to uphold and the reality of what he believes is right. The real standout, however, is Hugh Jackman as the borderline depraved father desperately trying to locate his daughter. Although his character primarily exhibits unstable anger, Jackman runs the complete gamut of emotions in the role. It may be saying more about his past roles than his performance in Prisoners, but Keller Dover might be the performance of Jackman’s career, and if the film were released at a different time he would be all but guaranteed an Oscar nomination.
Cast and Crew
- Director(s): Denis Villeneuve
- Screenwriter(s): Aaron Guzikowski
- Cast: Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover)Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki)Viola Davis (Nancy Birch) Maria Bello (Grace Dover)Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch)Melissa Leo (Holly Jones)Paul Dano (Alex Jones)
- Cinematographer: Roger Deakins
- Production Designer(s):
- Costume Designer:
- Casting Director(s):
- Music Score: Johann Johannsson
- Music Performed By:
- Country Of Origin: USA