Movie Information

The Story: When his daughter and her friend are kidnapped, a man takes matters into his own hands. The Lowdown: This is really a first-rate lurid thriller that harms itself by trying too hard to be more significant than it is. Still, the mystery and thriller aspects offer sufficient compensation to make it worth a look.
Genre: Mystery Thriller
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Incendies)
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo
Rated: R

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.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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2 thoughts on “Prisoners

  1. Jeremy Dylan

    I thought this was quite good. I was mainly impressed that I didn’t guess the final twist, even through afterward I felt like I should have.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Yes, you should have.

    I now would take a star off my rating of it. I think I was way too kind.

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