Prisoners: There’s a Good Thriller in Here Somewhere

A family-drama kidnap movie aims for Oscar but hits the skids

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Wilson Webb / Wilson Web

A decent man’s young daughter disappears, and he thinks he knows who took her. So after the police get nowhere questioning the suspect, Decent Guy abducts Creepy Guy to an abandoned house and applies his own enhanced interrogation techniques. Taken + Death Wish + Oldboy = thriller gold.

Except that Prisoners, which opens this weekend after gracing the Telluride and Toronto Film Festivals, has a more complex, by which I mean simply bigger, idea: that the virus of righteous revenge can infect the would-be hero as well as the presumed villain, and that people can be trapped by the way other people perceive them. Cuz we’re all prisoners, see?

(READ: Did Oldboy motivate a serial killing?)

A family-drama crime thriller, Prisoners fits the Oscar-wannabe formula of artistic ambition plus star quality. Five of its leading actors — Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo — have earned a combined two Academy Awards and seven nominations. Its French-Canadian director, Denis Villeneuve, making his first English-language film, snagged a Foreign Film Oscar nomination for Incendies in 2011. The script, by Aaron Guzikowski, once topped the famous Black List of best unproduced screenplays. The cinematographer is Roger Deakins, a 10-time Oscar nominee, including work on five Coen brothers’ movies and, most recently, for Skyfall.

So Prisoners has got more pedigree than a Westminster dog-show winner. It’s just not very good. In fact, it’s worse than not-very-good; it’s could’ve-been-really-good-and-isn’t.

Jackman, your favorite Jean Valjean and Wolverine, turns from two types of Big Movie to a seemingly small, naturalistic one. He plays Keller Dover, a contractor living in rural Pennsylvania with his wife Grace (Maria Bello), their teen son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and younger daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). Anna’s best friend is Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), daughter of the Dovers’ neighbors Nancy and Franklin (Davis and Howard).

(READ: How Hugh Jackman sang his pain in Les Misérables)

Anna and Joy disappear shortly after Ralph notices a strange van parked on their block. The local cop, Loki (Gyllenhaal), apprehends the van’s driver Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a shy, possibly disturbed loner. After questioning Alex, Loki lets him return to the home of his stern Aunt Holly (Leo). That’s when Keller shifts from ordinary Joe to avenging angel and tries to torture a confession out of Alex.

Guzikowski’s script pushes familiarly grisly serial-killer tropes in a couple of novel directions; if you anticipate the film’s ending, you’re way ahead of us. It smartly tests the viewer’s sympathies and common sense. And it achieves its art-house bona fides by borrowing from the vengeful-parent motif of the 2001 In the Bedroom.

The project might have seemed perfect for David Fincher — except that Fincher had already made two similar films, Se7en and Zodiac. But it did attract Gyllenhaal, whose character here inexplicably shares his name with the Norse god who caused so much trouble in Thor and The Avengers, and who more or less reprises his Zodiac role: a sleuth obsessed with heinous crimes.

(READ: How David Fincher got it right in Zodiac)

So the job went to Villeneuve, who swathes rural Georgia (stunt-doubling for Pennsylvania) in rain and murk. Through all the haze, you can almost detect the clever, comely outline of Guzikowski’s script inside the flab and pretension of Villeneuve’s directorial decisions.

The movie, which clocks in at nearly two-and-a-half hours, is perhaps an hour longer than it ought to be. The needless padding comes from the actors repeating essential lines of dialogue two or three times — you know, like real people do. (But do they? And, in a movie, should they?) The stars get to vent anger, but mainly in clichés:  Jackman smashes things; Gyllenhaal trashes his office desk.

(READ: Incendies as an Oscar nominee for Best Foreign-Language Film

In a nod to the tropes of mainstream movies, Prisoners has a climactic chase scene, en route to a hospital; apparently Loki is the only cop in Pennsylvania, and, though grievously wounded, he cannot call on reserves to help him. And when the film should be tightening the narrative screws, it allows itself grand-opera delusions, giving virtually every major character a final verbal aria. Perhaps Villeneuve was paid by the number of minutes in the release print.

Among the actors, Leo steals scenes with her usual steely resolve. Dano pumps his whiny-disturbed persona (from There Will Be Blood, Meek’s Cutoff and Looper) to a new register, and this time it works. David Dastmalchian is excellent — chatty, modest with some subtle telltale psychopathy — in a small role as one of the kidnap suspects. And Gyllenhaal does Gyllenhaal; he’s good at that. (The African-American actors are given little of import to work with; they are the merest black herrings.)

(READ: Melissa Leo as an Oscar pick for The Fighter)

Jackman tries hard to fit his outside frame into a common-man mold, and then into a creature who may be as deranged as any child molester, but he is saddled with ludicrous lines — such as when he whacks Alex and screams, “Why are you making me do this?” Maybe if he sang it, like Jean Valjean…

This is one of those films that prod the viewer to dream of storming the editing room and trying to carve an excellent thriller out of a meandering rough cut. Or, to paraphrase Winston Churchill‘s definition of golf, Prisoners is a good walk in the pathological dark, spoiled.

16 comments
icebox766
icebox766

This movie is just sad, because it's well acted, doesn't drag, but is still garbage because of 1) a crazy plot that ends up relying on a ridiculous surprise, and 2) has a cheap ending.  Did they have to cut the part where Loki does or doesn't figure out what he's hearing because they decided to cut the film to 2:30 by just snipping off the last 5 minutes? 

But seriously, I think they were trying to make a big ambiguous ending, but seriously, is this that big a question to debate?  Big deal. It's a cheap surprise movie, because there's no reason to suspect the actual killer until the end, which is completely a surprise, and then the ambiguity at end, is sort of pointless.  On a moral level, whether Loki figures out the source of the sound or not, isn't a just desserts happening in any event?  The last 15 minutes spoil what is otherwise a movie that holds you for 2:15 with only a few bits of ridiculousness.  But frankly, the idea that everything would have conspired to let the crimes that happened to the kids in this town go on for years and years in retrospect is kinda crazy too.  Though I know that similar crazyiness has happened in the real world. 

GaryGaborSzabo
GaryGaborSzabo

"he is saddled with ludicrous lines — such as when he whacks Alex and screams, “Why are you making me do this?” Maybe if he sang it, like Jean Valjean"

WTF? These reviews are ridiculous, do you know anything about filmmaking? Jackman's character was clearly blaming Alex for his actions, there's a deeper lying undertone to that line "Why are you making me do this?" than what you think. Jackman's character is a family man, devoted husband and father who snapped when his daughter was kidnapped. That's why the religious tones are there, all the irony, all the dark and gloomy stuff says alot about this character. He doesn't want to take responsibility for his actions against Alex, he makes him his scapegoat to justify beating him up. Everyone is different and reacts to situations differently, and while I don't agree with Jackman's character's decisions and the actions he took, from a filmmaking standpoint it is refreshing to see it from this angle. It goes deep into character study and the depths of the human soul. It is a powerful and moving film that has oscars written all over it.

Jude
Jude

This is a ridiculous review.  The 'black' could have been white...maybe the director & screenwriter were trying to say that actually the Hugh Jackman character and his wife were more accepting of people of different colours...I personally thought that since there was so much imagery of christianity and the crucifix, they could have sung a hymn or a gospel song at the start instead of 'the star-spangled banner', the belief in God didn't come through from the main characters...because vengeance was super hyped.  The acting was exceptional though especially of Jake Gylanthall.  I would give the film 4 stars even for its length.

dreamer55
dreamer55

I'm still trying to figure out how Jackman, Gyllenhaal, Howard, Davis, and Leo have a "combined two Academy Awards." Pretty sure Melissa Leo is the only Oscar winner, and she only has one.

RonKmieciak
RonKmieciak

Yeah, Loki should have totally stopped and made a call when the girl had a very limited time to live. 

Corliss is clearly biased about this movie, so I'm not taking his opinion seriously.

AaronSmith
AaronSmith

I thought the movie was fantastic.  Not to say it didn't have its flaws - I thought Loki was really free with the 4th Amendment, among some other problems already mentioned.  But the dialog didn't bother me at all - Attack of the Clones, this was not.  I thought it had some clever turns and what ifs, and it's definitely worth a watching.  Just my 2¢.

emmac0024
emmac0024

This review is dead on.  There is a great movie in Prisoners but it's muddled in logic problems and a few pondering moments.  It started out so good but about halfway began to derail and the more I thought about it, the less it made sense.  I thought the performances were great, but also wondered if Jake Gyllenhal's lone detective in entire town character was supposed to be somewhat incompetent.  And because it could've been truly Oscar worthy, it actually is too bad that it could not sustain and build on the opening hour. 

ErinElizabethPeterson
ErinElizabethPeterson

I agree whole-heartily with this review. I started to like it, I wanted to like it, but it seemed too long, they chose black actors just to have black actors (and wasting Terrance Howard in the process!), and I still don't what the "maze" is. Anyone want to inform me, please?

arealattack
arealattack

Why do you 'professional' critics try to attempt at being funny with your lame jokes? It's cringe worthy 

AnthonySaitta
AnthonySaitta

I felt lured into reading a plug for a new movie, but the plot is unique and if I don't see the Movie, I'll read the book.

so, I won't sue and will grudgingly even forgive you.

kmartingardner
kmartingardner

Anytime the sound bytes say, "Ambitious," that means pretentious piece of garbage.

tony.bickert
tony.bickert

@GaryGaborSzabo 


The critic was pointing out that the actor's yelling out the line was akin to hitting us over the head with a message. The message was loud and clear already -- and much too long in the telling. Oscar-worthy movies  do not tell at all. They show, get out while the getting's good, and you do the telling the next day at the water cooler. 

GaryGaborSzabo
GaryGaborSzabo

@ErinElizabethPeterson, The maze was underground. The entrance to the maze was the hole that Jackman was put in, that's how Bobby Taylor escaped and Joy escaped, seriously do you guys not pay attention when you watch a film or what? When Alex was being beaten and put in the shower he mentioned to Jackman about the maze. To Alex this was all a game, he had the IQ of a ten year old because he was drugged for so many years with the LSD drink Jackman's character was forced to drink. The reason for the maze being on the necklace of the dead guy in the basement in the beginning of the film is because he's the one that created the maze because he's a psycho, he kidnapped 16 kids, confessed to the priest and the priest took the law into his own hands. Lots of irony with him being a priest and then comitting the ultimate crime, that's the same with Jackman's character also. 

JohnNorthey
JohnNorthey

@ErinElizabethPeterson Good points.  The maze was weird - I suspect it was to say the characters couldn't escape but really should've been used in a different way, like why did the one character have it as a necklace?  The friends seemed more forced 'we say they are good friends, thus they are'  regardless of skin color.  For such a long movie they never gave me one reason to care in the slightest about any of them.

andersonastin9
andersonastin9

@ErinElizabethPeterson Not sure that I follow your logic about the black actors. Maybe both families are transplanted from other parts of the country with no relatives nearby and enjoy each other's company during Thanksgiving. Is that too much of a stretch? I honestly gave no thought about it during the movie.

I do agree it felt long at times but good nonetheless.

kjriverstone
kjriverstone

@ErinElizabethPeterson What the hell does that even mean they chose black actors just to have black actors? Did they need a reason to have black actors? Ridiculous.