Prisoners is a challenging film. It’s premise is fairly straight forward even as its plot is more complex: How far is too far when it comes to the lengths someone should go in protecting or rescuing someone they love? Prisoners uses its noticeable runtime (2 hr. 33 min.) to ponder the questions surrounding torture, vigilantism, faith, and true evil in the world.
Keller Dover is a married father of two whose daughter goes missing on Thanksgiving day. Going on the lead of a suspicious RV parked in the neighborhood, the police arrest the driver of the RV, Alex Jones, but end up releasing him due to a lack of evidence. As more time passes and hope of finding his daughter starts to run out, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands in order to get his daughter back, kidnapping Alex in order to find out where his daughter is.
On the whole, there are fine performances in this film. Hugh Jackman plays Keller, and Maria Bello is his wife, Grace. Terrance Howard and Viola Davis play the neighbors, Franklins and Nancy, whose daughter also goes missing. Jake Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki, the detective investigating the abductions. Paul Dano plays Alex Jones, the suspect driving the RV. And Melissa Leo rounds out the notable cast members as Alex’s aunt. Aside from an excess of yelling throughout the film, Jackman portrays the desperation and determination of his character well. Gyllenhaal is interesting as the lead detective, a man who is a bit of a loner, most likely because he gets wrapped up in his cases. I like Gyllenhall taking some different, slightly riskier roles in recent years. Dano’s Alex is simple-minded, and when Keller kidnaps him and threatens him with torture and begins to follow through on that threat to get the information he wants, you know it’s too obvious that it’s as straightforward a story as Jackman’s Keller believes, but Dano has played him with enough ambiguity to make you wonder.
And that is both strength and slight weakness of this movie. The question of how far is too far when it comes to protecting your family is laid out plain for the audience through the actions of Keller. When Terrance Howard’s Franklin is involved, he doesn’t have the assuredness of Keller, and struggles with his complicity. The film goes headlong into the realm of answering the questions it poses in terms of the torture it depicts. It’s not exploitative in its violence. It comes to the conclusion that there is real horror and true evil and the world which we must sometimes confront. But if you confront this evil in a similar method as it works, if you allow yourself to be brought down to its level and play by its rules, it will invariably change you.
I believe this is a commentary on some level of the politics of the U.S. in this 21st century. And while it is effective in answering many of the questions or dilemmas it poses, it stops short in one crucial aspect. Keller is a deeply religious man. The film opens with him saying the Lord’s prayer in the woods while hunting with his teenage son. At one point he starts his truck and there is a sermon on the radio. The film hints at the very real fact that there is a spiritual cost to the soul when Man does what Keller does in this movie. On a basic, humanistic level, when you stop treating another human being as a human being, you begin to lose part of your own humanity. At one point in the film he goes to recite the Lord’s prayer again and is incapable of finishing it, because he can’t bring himself to say a very difficult phrase. But while the film goes further in developing the other themes of this movie, this spiritual cost, this loss of humanity gets lost in the shuffle in the end.
On the technical side of things, the production values are well done. There is a beautiful camera shot of boats searching a river near an old mill that actually made me stop and say, “Wow, this is a really slickly produced film.” Some great camera angles, including one really great overhead shot of search teams in the woods. Director Denis Villenueve has done a good job with this film, though I think it could have trimmed about 20 minutes from its runtime. I don’t usually notice how long a film is, particularly a well-made one like Prisoners. Maybe it was because of how ponderous the film is about such a dark and difficult subject matter or maybe it was just when I watched it, but it felt long to me.
In the end, Prisoners is a film that deals with some tough themes with boldness and complexity that makes for a worthwhile entry in the crime procedural thriller genre.