This week, Prisoners, a psychological thriller starting Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhaal, takes the torture techniques we’ve seen in military thrillers this year and uses them in a domestic setting, pushing the boundaries of familial duty.
Prisoners opens with two families sharing Thanksgiving together in a quiet Pennsylvania suburb. Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Branch (Terrence Howard)–a vet and a high school music teacher—host Grace (Maria Bello) and Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman). After dinner, the adults realize that their young daughters, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), are missing, spurring a frantic search. The Dovers’ older son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) remembers an RV the girls played near earlier in the day, which leads the police, and meticulous Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man who reportedly has the IQ of a ten year old. Questioning Alex leads nowhere, but that doesn’t stop Keller from insisting that he knows where the girls are. When Detective Loki can’t keep Alex in custody, Keller abducts him, planning to torture him until he gives up the girls’ location. The story that unfolds is twisting and as engrossing as it is unbelievable.
Much of Prisoners hinges on different enactments of hyper-masculinity. Keller is a tough man whose motto is “pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” Deeply religious and a carpenter by trade, he spends a lot of time and energy in preparing his family for a disaster. The disaster that comes isn’t one he’d prepared for and that loss of control, paired with his wife’s crumbling reaction, pushes him to a place of violence. Meanwhile, in working the case, Detective Loki operates primarily as a strong, silent type, but his own outbursts of violence also compromise the outcome.
As much as the mystery, the way violence contradicts to the Christian or legal values of the male protagonists operates as a central pulse of Prisoners. In promoting the film, Hugh Jackman compared it to movies like Taken, but pointed out the way this movie takes readers on an emotional journey that questions our attitudes and assumptions about violence. I think that’s a pretty accurate description of my experience as a moviegoer. Obviously, I was invested in the cops finding the missing girls, but I was also engrossed in one father’s terribly inappropriate decisions—decisions that might make sense in the genre of an action movie, but in a drama set in real life they were just horrifying.
In bringing these complicated dynamics to life, the actors do a spectacular job delving into a mixture of grief, rage, and moral ambiguity. Hugh Jackman, normally such a good guy, is striking as Keller. He brings his characteristic emotional depth and tenderness to a role that demands a lot of hardness and anger, emphasizing how hard it is to peg Keller as a good guy or a bad guy. Opposite him, Gyllenhaal’s stoic Detective Loki has subtle reactions that help bring some reason to the chaos. Similarly, Viola Davis and Terrance Howard play characters with conflicting feelings with nuance and finesse. The scenes they share with Dano especially show desperation with haunting realism. Although Dano hardly ever speaks, he can still steal a scene through his poignant portrayal of trauma.
As thought provoking and deep as the character development in Prisoners was, the plot was overly-complicated in a way that didn’t make me want to stop watching, but also detracted from the quality of the film. The kidnapping of the girls and Keller torturing Alex take up a lot of emotional energy, but on top of that, the film throws in complicated plot twists, pseudo-red herrings, and a villain with a cliched and over-blown back story. Plus, there are plenty of threads left hanging for no clear reason. It’s an intense ride, but in terms of plot points, less would have been more. I shy away from a full summary because if I wrote it all out it would sound more ridiculous than it felt in the moment. Nonetheless, the acting and beautifully filmed settings carry this movie despite a faulty story.
For the compelling performances but convoluted plot, I rate Prisoners 3.5/5 stars.
Prisoners was written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve. It runs 153 minutes and is rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
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