Film Review – Prisoners
Coming off its premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, Prisoners has so far had pretty spectacular reviews. That always increases the hype when going into a screening; that I was too excited to be blown away by this film is an understatement. As a fan of crime and detective stories, put me in front of a Law & Order marathon and I am set for the day. There is just something about a “whodunit” that keeps you guessing and your mind actively processing what is being fed to you on screen. Prisoners is probably the most complex crime story of this year.
The film is about the disappearance of two little girls from two families on Thanksgiving Day. They leave the house together and are not seen again. A massive search is ignited, and the only real clue as to who may have been involved is an RV. Fathers Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) join in the search, while the mothers, Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), stay at home and await news. Lead detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) runs the investigation and has an impressive 100% success rate. When the RV is found in a parking lot with Alex Jones (Paul Dano) inside and trying to escape the police, the finger pointing begins.
This is an incredibly complex film with characters that have their own hidden fears and agendas. “Prisoners” not only refers to the two missing girls, but to some of the other characters, as well. Prisoners of fear, the past, morality, and religion are the ones that stand out. There are literal interpretations of prisoners, as well.
Hugh Jackman’s performance as Keller Dover is not what you would expect from the same guy who plays Wolverine and has appeared in several romantic comedies. Keller goes to a dark place. He is the guy who is always prepared for anything, and when his daughter disappears, he realizes that there is not a lot he can do. He could not protect his daughter, and this tears at him. He is a religious man, and what he does to Alex Jones tests his faith and how far he is willing to go for answers or revenge. Jackman plays Keller as dark and frantic, with a rage that is just under the surface, waiting to be set off. His character pushes the boundary on the question “How far would you would go to save your child?” He will have the audience asking that same question of themselves.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s complex Detective Loki is obviously a guy who holds himself to a high standard, but uses some questionable tactics to solve cases. He makes promises he may not be able to keep. We do not see his personal life, just him on the job. His determination borders on obsession for the case, but his character and background are not spelled out. He has many tattoos, and those on his fingers are symbols; he also wears a ring with a symbol on it. These tattoos are never explained. He does have a tattoo of a cross on his hand that possibly shows that he was or is a religious man. It is somewhat frustrating to see elements or physical characteristics that are not explained, but are important enough for the director to focus on them several times in the film. On the other hand, it is also nice to not have everything spelled out.
This is not an easily solvable mystery. I figured out who was responsible about two-thirds of the way through the film, but did not entirely figure out who was involved and all the little details until they were explained. This is not a simple story, and it throws many curveballs, making you change who you think took the girls. This is a film that you can see a second time, much like The Sixth Sense, and pick out all the clues that point towards the truth that you missed the first time.
Prisoners has a runtime of over two and a half hours, and that is really the only bad thing about it. It does drag in parts. There are points where things are discovered and the film picks up in pace, but it goes back to feeling slow again until another development. Had the runtime been cut down to two hours, it might have better sustained the level of anticipation and excitement for the audience.
This review has used the word complex one too many times, but Prisoners is not a cut-and-dried “whodunit” film. The characters and the story are compelling and not predictable. For this being director Denis Villeneuve’s first big budget studio film, it is remarkable, and his focus on smaller details and not overexplaining everything is appreciated. This is a film that will lead to discussions about motives, what you would do, and when you figured it all out. Prisoners will inevitably end up on some top ten lists at the end of the year, and possibly gain some award nominations as well, especially for Hugh Jackman.