As summer draws to a close, we move away from the popcorn fare that has flooded theaters for the past three months. I enjoy such movies, but I welcome those that have a little more “meat on the bone.” Boasting an acclaimed cast and frighteningly realistic plot, Prisoners was such a movie. Hugh Jackman proves his versatility as a leading man, whether it’s showcasing his vocal ability (Les Miserables) or pushing his body to its physical limits (The Wolverine). In Prisoners, he gives an emotionally wrought performance as a father amid a devastating tragedy.
The movie begins in a small Pennsylvania community on Thanksgiving. Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace (Mario Bello, Grown Ups 2) are joining good friends Franklin (Terrence Howard, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis, Won’t Back Down) for dinner, along with each couples’ two children. Anna and Joy are 6 and 7, while Ralph and Eliza are in high school. Thanksgiving is a time when families strengthen the ties that bind, and director Denis Villeneuve struck the perfect familial tone to contrast sharply with what follows. The four kids go for a brief walk in the neighborhood, where the younger pair happens upon a strange RV. They climb on it briefly, before their older siblings shoo them away. An eerie sense of foreboding washes over the viewer here, foreshadowing the crux of the storyline.
After returning home, Anna asks if she and Joy can walk back to her house. As the lazy day unfolds, Keller notices that Anna and Joy haven’t returned. Initially the girls’ families are calm and composed, but as the girls remain unaccounted for, a feeling of dreadful panic swells within them. They frantically search the neighborhood after Ralph mentions the strange camper they’d seen earlier. When the RV is found in a wooded area hours later, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) responds to the call. Loki finds Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper), a teenaged boy with some cognitive deficits. Alex seems psychologically disturbed, but there’s no real proof that he did anything wrong, which leads to his ultimate release.
Keller’s grief and frustration are ratcheted up to an overwhelming level, and he abducts Alex, holding him prisoner to question him on the girls’ whereabouts. Don’t worry – I haven’t revealed anything that wasn’t in the trailer. The movie follows Keller’s desperate actions and Detective Loki’s investigation. Alex is a viable suspect, but it also seems that Keller could be mistaken. And if he’s wrong, has his quest to find the monster that took his child turned him into a monster himself?
Prisoners was successful in crafting a disturbing, somber tone that never felt too heavy. Thrillers like this often run the risk of really bringing you down; but I never felt that way. The notable cast features an impressive total of four Academy Award nominees and one Golden Globe nominee, and their collective talent shone through. Jackman, Bello, Howard and Davis gave four unique performances, and I found the distinct coping mechanism of each family interesting and well portrayed. Although Keller had his perceived culprit in tow, Villeneuve shaped a suspenseful narrative that kept viewers wondering throughout. If I have a criticism, it’s that the details became briefly muddled. Red herrings can be an effective tool if used properly, or they can feel insincere if the audience thinks the filmmaker is playing “gotcha” by casting false suspicion on a particular character. Overall though, I thought the movie was very suspenseful and expertly acted, making it well worth the price of admission. Grade: B+
This review first appeared at Poptimal and was reprinted with permission.