How far is too far when the law doesn’t go far enough?
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal & Paul Dano
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
R, 153 min.
Released Sept. 20, 2013
Plunged into every parent’s worst nightmare, a desperate father (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands when his young daughter and her friend disappear and the local police department can’t get answers out of the man he’s convinced abducted them.
With no evidence to hold the developmentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving the rattrap minivan seen near the girls just before they vanished, the cops have to let him go. That’s when Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, abducts him, secretly holds him prisoner in an abandoned building, and begins a prolonged attempt to beat the truth out of him.
How far is too far to go, Prisoners asks, when the law doesn’t go far enough?
That’s not the only question the movie raises, in its brutally direct way, as it plows through a minefield of raw nerves, shattered emotions, shifting moral boundaries and unnerving religious overtones. Most of those questions don’t have easy answers.
What are we to think, for instance, when Dover fortifies himself with the Lord’s Prayer before another grueling session subjecting his captive, who has the mental capacity of a 10-year-old, to almost unthinkable abuse? Or when Dover’s neighbors Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), whose young daughter was also taken, justify their complicity to his plan? “We won’t help him,” Nancy reasons, “but we won’t stop him, either.”
And feel free to overlay any number of social issues, current events, theological debates or other entry points for discussion onto Dover’s declaration that his prisoner is “not a person anymore,” and that “we have to hurt him until he talks.”
Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), seemingly the only cop on the case in the entire (unnamed) Pennsylvania town, tirelessly tracks down clues that always seem to leave him frustratingly short of a breakthrough. Unable to cope, Dover’s wife (Maria Bello) retreats into a prescription-induced haze.
Melissa Leo plays Alex’s aunt, who raised him after his parents died, and David Dastmalchian is chilling as another suspect with a peculiar interest in children’s clothes…and other creepy things.
“Prisoners” has a strong cast with seven Oscar nominations and two Academy Award trophies among them. The movie’s palette of bleak winter landscapes also packs a visceral punch, thanks to ten-time Academy Award-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, who’s worked on five Coen Brothers movies and the sumptuous-looking James Bond adventure Skyfall.
But strip away its impressive Hollywood pedigree and it basically boils down to basic B-movie stock, shock and schlock. If you’ve seen anything like it, you’ve probably seen a lot of things like it.
Note the “s” in the title. By the time Prisoners ends after a marathon 153 minutes, it’s obvious it wants to leave you thinking about how you’ve encountered more than one prisoner, in more ways than one. But you’ll also be thinking about how it’s at least half an hour too long, how much of a grim ordeal the whole affair turned out to be, and how director Denis Villeneuve threw in way too much of just about everything, including snakes, some mumbo-jumbo about a “war against God,” and all those mazes, mazes and more mazes that all lead nowhere.
Fans of forensic-investigation and crime-procedural TV shows like CSI might enjoy the twisty-turn-y trip down the zig-zaggy rabbit hole to the end. But as the credits rolled after the final scene set in the darkness of night, in the winter cold, with a frosting of snow on hard, frozen ground, I was glad to “escape” to somewhere brighter, somewhere warmer, and somewhere I hadn’t just seen Paul Dano’s face repeatedly bludgeoned into the consistency of raw deer meat.
—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine