Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a Doomsday Prepper. His basement is stocked full of propane canisters, non-perishable food items, water jugs, and everything else you would need to ride out the collapse of civilization. He is a master carpenter, good with his hands, just taught his teenage son to kill a deer with a rifle; Keller is a man’s man. He tells his son the most important thing he ever learned is to, “Be ready.” When his young daughter is kidnapped, not only is family violated, his role as protector is shattered. Keller was not ready for this.
The most practical thing in the world for Keller to do to get his daughter back is keep asking the prime suspect where she is. If he will not willingly say where she is, asking will morph into intense torture until Keller gets what he wants. The subject of Keller’s ire is Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex is in his early ‘30s but has the IQ of a 10-year-old. Unfortunately for him, his RV was seen in Keller’s neighborhood during the kidnapping.
The cops are on the case too, but Keller has no time for glacial speed and ineffective questioning techniques. They are the ones who questioned Alex in the first place and cut him loose. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads the investigation and grills Alex pretty good before concluding he is not their man. Loki is not an old and grizzled veteran yet but this is not his first time around the block either. Wishing Keller would just stay at home and comfort his wife (Maria Bellow), Loki checks out the usual suspects.
Half of Prisoners is a police procedural following Loki as he tracks the kidnapper and the other half loiters on Keller and his inner turmoil while he agonizes and prays to figure out how far he will hurt another human being who he is only pretty sure knows where he daughter is. Keller’s neighbor, Franklin (Terrence Howard), lost his daughter during the same kidnapping but seems inclined to let the cops sort it all out and lacks the stomach to join in on Keller’s vigilantism. His conscience feels superior to Keller’s because while he will not participate too much in the brutality, he is willing to let Keller turn the screws on Alex in hopes he finally breaks.
The problem with Prisoners half and half plot lines is neither story gets it due. We learn absolutely nothing about Detective Loki. Intriguing tattoos cover his neck and fingers but we learn nothing about them. The first time we see him he eats Thanksgiving dinner solo in a Chinese fast food restaurant. Why so lonesome? On Keller’s side, we know he struggles as a workman in a slow economy, has some deep-seeded fears concerning natural disasters, but that is about it. For a two and half hour film, our two protagonists are left almost as blank at the end as the beginning.
Director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated for Incendies, 2011) creates a tense atmosphere and the feeling that nobody is doing enough to find these little girls but he lets the film meander too long. Less would have been much more. 10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins employs original camerawork, especially of Alex, as he is held captive in some claustrophobic quarters with just a sliver of light illuminating his grotesque visage.
Writer Aaron Guzikowski needs an editor with a fresh red pen and could use help on the ending. I will give nothing away, but the ending is weak. The perpetrator gives an explanation and it is just a throwaway line. We learn next to nothing about why – why did we endure 153 minutes full of relentless set up and red herrings to run smack into a soft landing?
Prisoners is bleak and gray; I do not remember the sun coming out once. With such a cold atmosphere and gripping premise, the film should be as impactful as Mystic River was; unfortunately, the paper thin characters cannot hold up such heavy material.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola David, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano