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.