Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal star in tightly woven child abduction thriller Prisoners. Jackman plays the oddly named Keller Dover, a father whose daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) is taken early on in the story, along with a friend of hers. Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki, who is assigned to this case. Over the two and a half hours of the film, there are several twists and turns and multiple suspects in the case.
At it’s best this movie is entertaining, dark and highly engaging, inviting the viewer into a sense of hopelessness and extreme sadness felt by the families of the missing girls. It is also intelligent and provides a level of social commentary in the way suspects are treated and what desperation will drive a person to do, especially in War-on-Terror era America.
Jackman gives a powerful performance as Keller, though for a character suffering such trauma and who, as a result, imprisons one of the suspects, Alex (Paul Dano) and tortures him, he is remarkably without depth. Ok, so by the very nature of the plot outline, we know what his motives are and the kind of headspace he is occupying, but for a film that affords itself a reasonably long runtime in relation to what it actually offers, it is a shame that Keller isn’t explored a little more. None of this is the fault of Jackman though – he does everything possible with the role.
Gyllenhaal too puts in a fine display as the Detective frantically trying to piece clues together in the face of police bureaucracy, and maintain his perfect record for solving cases. He’s arguably the best thing about the film, giving Loki plenty of personal character touches. He’s quiet and unnervingly non-emotive in the face of a horrible case to deal with, and Gyllenhaal has saddled his character with a extremely noticeable blinking tic. I’ve read other blogs that have speculated as to what this could suggest about Loki’s back-story, but personally I think that’s reading a hell of a lot into it. Certainly though, Loki feels like the most interesting character here, allowing Gyllenhaal to shine brighter than his co-stars.
Paul Dano is also worthy of a special mention as the near monosyllabic, brain damaged suspect Alex. I’ve not seen quite as much of Dano’s work as I would like, but what I have seen has made me a fan of his. He’s regularly impressive as ‘creepy’ characters, and that’s certainly the case here. Afforded very little meaningful dialogue, he does a hell of a lot of work to turn Alex into a meaningful central character and is never less than perfect.
I liked much of Denis Villeneuve’s direction a lot. His choice of camera angles regularly does a fantastic job of helping to build the tension and occasionally had me shifting a little uncomfortably in my cinema seat. He has also done some fantastic work in creating the dark tone of the film. There’s a hell of a lot rain and a lot of night time action, which is probably the creepiest time to be lurking about when you know there’s a child-snatcher in the area. That creates a claustrophobic feel, entirely in keeping with the enclosed spaces that vast amounts of the movie are set in.
For everything that it does well (and really, that’s the majority of the film), I did find that it took a downturn in the last 30-40 minutes. Throughout the movie, there are the pre-requisite twists and turns that come with a crime thriller, as various come suspects come in and out, but when it finally gets to the big reveal I felt it was an anti-climax. To be honest, that final half hour almost felt like it belonged to a different film, substituting intelligent turns for a blunt, in-your-face revelation. What follows just doesn’t quite sit right, or at least it didn’t with me. It’s like the film takes two turns too many and after a lengthy build up, fails to provide a satisfying explanation for much of what has gone before, and unfortunately this allows the final section of the movie to drag somewhat.
At it’s best, Prisoners is engrossing and smart. However, a lack of restraint in the twists and, at times, a clumsy script, undoes some of the good work that has gone before. It isn’t enough to ruin what is still a very good film, but when the end of a film so often dictates the overall memory you have of the film, I will long think of Prisoners as a good movie that doesn’t quite live up to it’s potential.