Prisoners is an effective thriller that builds and builds, much like a tense crime novel, until it hits a critical mass that it can’t possibly sustain. The effectiveness of the first two-thirds of the movie unravels a bit once the big reveal comes around. It’s simply too difficult not to gravitate toward a stereotypical police procedural ending with this type of story.
The Dover family are nice, down-to-earth folks. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) loves his family. “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” he says. Keller does indeed prepare for the worst. His basement is stocked with everything a family might need in case the end of the world happens. During a Thanksgiving dinner party with the Dover’s best friends, the Birch family, something dreadful happens. Young Joy Birch and Anna Dover disappear after going outside for a couple of minutes. After hours of frantic searching the families are completely beside themselves. They have no idea where their daughters have gone. The only clue they have to go on is the presence of a strange RV lurking around the neighborhood.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case. He soon discovers that dealing with Keller isn’t going to be easy. Keller is a take charge kind of man, and he doesn’t like to be told what to do. As you might suspect this leads to quite a bit of mistrust and anger between the two men.
In the midst of the star-studded stable of top-notch acting talent, Gyllenhall pulls out one of the best performances of his career. His portrayal of the quiet, contemplative Loki is deeply layered. Watching him piece together this heinous mystery is troubling and satisfying. He’s just so good at conveying the story without saying a word.
The early awards buzz for Prisoners may be premature, however. While it’s an extremely capable thriller, it doesn’t feel all that dissimilar to dark TV police procedurals like The Killing or Top of the Lake. The constant planting of red herrings throughout the movie’s extremely long, 146-minute runtime only serve to prove the point.
Don’t get me wrong, Prisoners is definitely worth seeing. As far as crime movies go, it’s one of the more engrossing thrillers. The entire feeling of unease is helped by cinematographer Roger Deakins’ bleak landscapes. Gray rainy streets, white sterile hospitals and dingy brown caves, all serve as backdrops to a gloomy story.
The script, written by Aaron Guzikowski, attempts to call attention to severe moral dilemmas. It’s obvious from the trailers that Keller, after he feels the cops aren’t doing enough to find his daughter, takes matters into his own hands, and kidnaps the person he feels is responsible. That person is Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex appears to have the mind capacity of a 10-year old, but that doesn’t stop Keller from thinking he’s the one who did it. Keller tortures Alex relentlessly trying to retrieve information. The moral ambiguity is murky. Does it serve the greater good? Or is Keller doomed for committing such an act?
The problem here is that the script brings up so many questions about morality and humanity, and then fails to come to any sort of resolution. In the end it seems almost too afraid to show the harsh consequences that are sure to follow. Instead the end of the movie is concerned far too much with the whodunit, which happens to be a twist that’s a little too predictable, and a little too unsatisfying given the questions that are still left on the table.