Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES) has managed to do a rather remarkable thing with his latest picture, the thrilling crime mystery PRISONERS. In the moment, PRISONERS is fantastic, ratcheting up the tension with each passing scene, keeping you involved with the intrigue of solving the circumstances behind the disappearance of two young girls one Thanksgiving afternoon in broad daylight without one solid lead for the police to trail. However, in order to be so effective at capturing your mind with its twists and turns, it’s able to hide some rather glaring weaknesses behind strong performances from Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo. It’s hard to take your mind off anything that Jackman is doing throughout the film, as the Aussie actor brings a fierce intensity to PRISONERS that surpasses even the heights of rage he showcased any time he suited up as Wolverine. And, in keeping you so focused on the actions of this distraught father searching for answers at any cost in order to save his daughter and her friend, Villeneuve is able to sneak past the view a number of details that, if given some real thought, would cripple what the movie is trying to accomplish. Hell, even as I watched PRISONERS, I started to notice them more and more and began questioning some of the larger elements of the film… but I had already been pulled that deeply into the moral quandary Jackman’s character Keller Dover faces at the hands of screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and the idea of figuring out this well-laid mystery that I was able to overlook those problem areas for the most part until my ride home. Does that mean PRISONERS is a bad film? Not at all. PRISONERS does a wonderful job keeping you focused on the main task at hand during the movie – finding out what happened to these little girls – as you try to work your way through various clues and leads that the film hands over to you in order to keep you busy. But, once removed from that initial viewing, perhaps in revisiting it down the road, PRISONERS may not hold up all that well. But that first watch… PRISONERS is quite good.
Being a dad of two small children, PRISONERS absolutely capitalized on my worst fears of my kids mysteriously vanishing into thin air without a trace. You get a sick feeling as such awful thoughts creep into your head from time to time, knowing how powerless you are against such a tragedy occurring, which only makes it that much worse. It’s a situation where you’d want to do everything in your power to bring them home safe and sound, unharmed and unaffected, but there’s very little you can do to begin with. That sucks more than you could ever imagine, and that’s what helped me understand what Dover was going through. It’s a terror every parent suppresses as best as they can, but you can’t help it rearing its ugly head every once in awhile, keeping you aware of such horrors.
With only the knowledge that this pair of girls had recently been playing by a disheveled RV parked in the neighborhood not long before their disappearance, Jackman’s Dover is convinced that this strange vehicle is somehow involved or responsible and wants the head of whoever was driving it. That person is Alex Jones (played masterfully by Dano), who upon being approached by police attempted to escape, driving the motor home into a tree before eventually being taken into custody. Alex is someone who’s never been in trouble his whole life, according to his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). He doesn’t have much, except that camper, and that includes much intelligence. Alex has the smarts of a 10-year-old boy, even though he’s in his 30s, which certainly doesn’t help the police investigation into his possible involvement. A polygraph test doesn’t really work when the one taking it doesn’t understand the questions being asked. And so it’s back to square one for Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who after 24 hours doesn’t have a damn thing to go on – not a tire track, not a print, not a smidge of fiber or DNA that might give him a direction to go in. It doesn’t matter that there is something clearly off about Alex Jones. That’s not enough to arrest someone on when you don’t have a shred of proof to connect them to the crime.
That sets Dover off on a path all his own, seeking his own bit of vigilante justice, believing he is running out of time to save his daughter every minute that passes without finding answers. His ideas harken back to this feeling like one has to be doing something, not believing Loki or the authorities are doing enough. It’s a painful process to just sit and wait and hope, leaving everything in the hands of investigators who are busy investigating. That doesn’t mean they’re doing nothing… but it certainly takes time for their approach to yield any type of results. If it didn’t, crimes would be solved in no time often. And this is where Jackman as a desperate man really kicks into full gear, as you watch him take the law into his own hands, certain that Alex Jones is the guy they’re looking for.
PRISONERS seems to reopen the debate about whether or not torture is okay, a discussion that post-9/11 has really shown where our individual moral compasses stand when it comes to doing things that would normally be below our ideals, all in the name of getting intel and saving lives. Is it justifiable to do horrible things to someone, devaluing their life in order to save someone who matters more to us? Doesn’t engaging in such behavior put us on the same lowly level as our enemies? It’s easy to make such determinations on principle, when you’re far detached from the situation… but what if you were staring such circumstances right in the face? What if your child’s life hung in the balance? Would you compromise such principles, or would you stay true to your sense of right and wrong? Jackman’s Dover is thrust into such a predicament, and the results are haunting, made only worse by Villeneuve’s decision to show the aftermath of such choices. Seeing such awful sights once again call into question the position you may take, but that’s one of the strengths of PRISONERS – keeping you guessing even in regards to your own feelings on how things are playing out.
Let me get to one of those big hidden weaknesses though, and that’s Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki. Now Gyllenhaal does a fine job of bringing forth the frustrated detective who seems to be unable to catch a break in furthering his investigation, but, for the character, that’s a huge problem. Loki is framed as this stellar mind who has solved every case he’s been involved with, recovering every single child that’s gone missing on his watch… and yet, in PRISONERS, he’s incapable of finding even the most obvious clue to get him on the right track… the very same clues that the audience is quick to pick up on, sending us all in a tizzy attempting to piece together the puzzle ourselves. For such a great detective, Loki may be one of the worst detectives I’ve ever seen, considering he’s not very good at detecting anything. When he finally does turn up something of substance, the only way he recognizes it is through coincidence and dumb luck combined. Now, upon my initial viewing, this struck me as off, but not something that affected my enjoyment of PRISONERS… the intensity of the film’s events were enough to get me to look beyond it… keeping my eyes on the greater pictures and not this one element. However, it was on my way home that Loki’s poor job performance started to eat at me. PRISONERS progresses in spite of him, not because of him, and while Gyllenhaal is fine in the role, it’s the role itself that isn’t fine within the movie. That’s why I was completely fine with PRISONERS in the moment, but later on… well, it’s got some flaws I take issue with that might not allow me to enjoy it in the same way at a later date.
PRISONERS looks beautiful, probably way better than a crime thriller like this should, and that’s thanks to respected cinematographer Roger Deakins, who makes the film so artful, it may be yet another of those distractions, along with the film’s emotions, that help cover for its broken pieces. But I’m not going to make excuses for how much I dug PRISONERS as it was unfolding in front of me. I really locked into the story it was telling, and couldn’t shake the fear of children going missing that it preyed upon. For that, I would absolutely recommend giving PRISONERS a watch, but beware… It is a very creaky bridge you’re crossing with Villeneuve’s film, and, if one of those Gyllenhaal boards crack beneath you at any time, this one may crash on you with the quickness. However, I was able to ignore it for two-and-a-half hours to really get into the flick… and really that’s what it’s all about.