Intelligent and intensely harrowing, ‘Prisoners’ grips and doesn’t relent
The motto of Keller Dover, a survivalist with a basement filled to the brim with stockpiled supplies, is to always be ready. But even he can’t foresee what was about to befall his family.
The kidnapping of two young girls — including Keller’s daughter — in a small town drives this father and one detective to their limits in this dark thriller. “Prisoners” is a chilling suspense film bolstered by all-around excellent performances highlighted by Jackman and Gyllenhaal.
Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) gather for a warm Thanksgiving meal between the two families. Over the course of the evening, though, their two youngest daughters, Eliza Birch and Anna Dover, are lost when they go outside to play. The families frenziedly search the neighborhood, but their kids are missing, the only hint to their disappearance being a white, dilapidated RV.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to their case, a man whose perfect record of solving cases is put on the line as the convoluted clues and dead ends mount. Keller’s explosiveness and Loki’s by-the-book, collected demeanor instantly put the two at odds with each other.
The bleak landscape embellishes the opaque atmosphere of the film. Although the name is not given, the film is set in a rural small town, where no one would think such sinister crimes would occur, making the menace all the more perturbing. Winter has descended in late November, and a steely gray sky hangs over like a pall. All colors of the movie are muted, with no bright skies, dark flannels or heavy jackets.
The plot for “Prisoners” is taut. Apart from a minor, extraneous yarn or two, the narrative is devoid of fat and hums along with a cold, disconcerting tone. The twists, turns and decisions characters make never seem to be without their proper foreshadowing and rationale. The film is logical. There are no gaping plot holes and the characters aren’t dumb. The audience doesn’t have to ask, “Well, why didn’t they obviously do this?” because the film’s already done that, or is about to. It neither panders to the audience nor tries to be smarter.
Jackman and Gyllenhaal both command the screens in very different ways. Jackman’s Keller is the patriarch who has failed in his singular duty to protect his family, and he will go to any means to right this. With unbridled passion and intensity, Jackman simultaneously brings both determined anguish and anger.
Gyllenhaal’s Loki, on the other hand, is consistently calm, wishing nothing more than to be able to do his job correctly. Gyllenhaal’s understated performance instills his character with a low-key, confident intelligence. There are occasional scenes of outbursts from both actors that seem slightly overdone, but that may be just nitpicking. Supporting actors Howard, Bello and Davis are not to be forgotten, as each veteran authentically delivers raw performances of distressed parents.
This is not the thriller where one is merrily along for the ride, mindlessly gobbling popcorn. “Prisoners” is a tough movie; there’s child abduction, the threat of murdered children, and scenes of torture. However, for those that watch, it engages on all levels, from gruesome, gut-wrenching visuals to ambiguous questions of ethics.