Here we have another of those good movies that might have been a much better one if it hadn’t strained so hard to be more than it is. Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is indeed a solid — if somewhat preposterous and muddled — mystery thriller. It’s something close in style to Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) — so close that it borrows a trick or two from that film. If it had stuck to that … but it doesn’t. No, the film has a burning need to be “about something,” and everyone involved is determined that the viewer will realize it. Apart from the ham-fisted histrionics this tack generates, the problem is the film never knows what to do with the illusion of moral weightiness it insists upon. As a result, you get an essentially pulpy thriller that pushes you to see it as more important than it is.
The premise is sound. Two little girls go missing on Thanksgiving Day. The parents are frantic — played by Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard). When Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) releases the only suspect, the simple-minded Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the volatile Keller erupts into a frenzy, attacking Jones as he’s released. During this attack Jones whispers to Keller, “They didn’t cry till I left them” — something no one else hears, or at least will corroborate. It is this that drives Keller to kidnap the young man, imprison him in the crumbling apartment building Keller’s late father owned, and attempt to torture the information out of him.
It’s this question of torturing the simple-minded Jones that is supposed to give the film its deeper side, but whether it really deepens the film in any significant way is debatable. We know that Jones indeed knows something that he just stubbornly refuses to tell, but this wears down our sympathy somewhat. Worse, the realization that all this does produce some results — even if not in the way anticipated and not directly shown (Villeneuve likes to fade-to-black at key moments) — makes its point even more vague. If we’re to believe that Keller’s behavior is reprehensible — and somehow tied to his Lord’s Prayer-reciting, macho deer-hunting mindset — the movie never offers much certainty.
Mostly, all the film’s efforts at being deep seem calculated more to film awards than anything, while carefully giving its stars the chance to do something big. Jackman gets to bellow, bulge his veins, chew the scenery and generally angle for that Oscar. But Gyllenhaal — with his never-explained grimaces, twitches and blinking — is allowed his share of Oscar Bigness. Viola Davis gets to cry, and there’s no denying she always does that spectacularly well. Paul Dano gets to play mentally-challenged, which is usually good for some kind of nomination. Acting-wise, this is one busy movie. No wonder Maria Bello spends most of the film in a kind of drugged stupor. She knows she can’t compete with all this.
The thing is, while all this industrial strength acting is going on, there’s also a pretty engrossing mystery afoot that keeps your attention. Oh, the red herrings — especially, the central one — can be a bit much, and the plot is ultimately pretty hard to swallow, though I will say its big twist isn’t as out-of-nowhere as some have said. (In other words, you’ve been played fair.) But for all that, as a mystery, Prisoners manages to be compelling in spite of its overbearing attempts at some kind of profundity. Rated R for disturbing, violent content, including torture and language throughout.