Film review: Prisoners
posted at 9:31 am on September 22, 2013 by Ed Morrissey
The Dovers and the Birches get together for a big Thanksgiving dinner, but the families won’t stay whole for long. Their youngest daughters disappear that afternoon, and the older teens in the families remember that they seemed pretty interested in a motor home that has suddenly disappeared. When police find the RV with no trace of the girls, they have to let the driver go. One father won’t let it go at that, though, and decides to take matters into his own hands. How far would you go to fight for your child — and would you risk your soul to get her back?
Prisoners offers audiences a taut thriller with plenty of surprises, even if the run time seems a little long at 153 minutes. Nothing is quite what it seems, not even the families of the victims — and at times, it’s arguable as to who the victims are. The answers don’t come easy, not for the characters and not for the audience, which will find the situation more ambiguous than one might presume. After all, we have seen this scenario unfold in morality plays, from old Twilight Zone episodes to Death Wish, Gran Torino, and every vengeance film made over the last several decades. Prisoners manages to find a path through that maze of well-trodden ground and discern a different way out, one that may not prove entirely satisfactory but has the virtue of original thought.
With that said, there were a few problems with the film. Since those may tend to tip off important plot points, I’ll post them below the rest of the review so that readers can decide to skip reading it. Besides the film length and the heavy-handed way that the film handles Christianity (see below), though, Prisoners is very satisfying as a thriller, although at times the film tries to fit a little too much into the mystery.
The cinematography of Prisoners has a gritty and realistic feel to it, a bit reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs in that way (and also in its pacing and plot structure, too). Thankfully, director Denis Villaneuve spares us from Shaky Cam and Ultra-Close-Ups, opting for more traditional camerawork and leaving us within the story. The cast is universally excellent, but the film rests primarily on Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, one of the two fathers, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki. Paul Dano as Alex Jones, the driver of the RV, provides an almost-inexplicably creepy performance in a critical role, and makes it work well. By the end, audiences will wish they got to see a little more of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the Birches and Maria Bello as Keller’s wife Grace. Melissa Leo turns in a masterful performance as Alex’s aunt, who disappears so totally into the role that I had to check IMDB to see which character she played.
It’s not a perfect film, but Prisoners does feature some original thought and real surprises in its twists. That plus the performances should outweigh its shortcomings for most viewers. On the 5-point Hot Air scale, Prisoners gets a 4:
- 5 – Full price ticket
- 4 – Matinee only
- 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
- 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
- 1 – Avoid at all costs
Prisoners is rated R for “disturbing violent content including torture,” and take that warning seriously. The language is also raw, but that’s probably more of a secondary consideration for the R rating. Absolutely not appropriate for children and teens.
** Some spoilers **
First, there are a couple of procedural points. Police generally don’t carry weapons into interrogation rooms, and the film shows why at one point. Second, in a sequence near the end of the film, Detective Loki decides to drive a victim to the hospital at breakneck speed on a snowy night while being injured himself — rather than just call for an ambulance and back-up. The sequence was exciting but silly in context. Quite a few of the actions of the police seem rather odd during the film in ways necessary to service the plot, which makes the film look a little contrived at times. There is a disturbing sequence with a dog that I would imagine was either CGI or the cause of complaint for animal-welfare groups.
A bigger issue for Christian viewers will be the depiction of believers in this film, especially Keller Dover. The film opens with Hugh Jackman saying the Lord’s Prayer as Keller and his son Ralph stalk a deer on Thanksgiving morning, as the angle slowly widens to show the rifle and with the gunshot coming right after the “Amen.” Keller turns out to be a survivalist, and of course he’s the one who decides to torture Alex, praying at times while contemplating what else Keller can do to him. Furthermore, we get a Catholic priest as a sex offender, natch, who has an even darker secret that plays a crucial role in the film. (This is, of course, a checkbox for Hollywood films.) In contrast, Detective Loki is the voice of reason and rationality, whose Masonic ring gets a lot of screen time. (Loki is a reference to the prankster Norse god, but perhaps that’s just irony here.) Even with that, though, the film offers an intriguing look at spiritual warfare and at redemption — note the plural of Prisoners well — even if it’s a muddled and inconsistent look at it.