There’s a great movie hiding in the pretty good Prisoners. As expected from Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), the Québecois director’s Hollywood debut is professionally made, well acted, and offers numerous tense sequences. Laying the breadcrumbs of its child abduction story with assured ease, it’s in the exploration of clues and overall solving that the film struggles. None of these flaws are enough to completely sink the project, but considering how much it gets right, a more capable handling seems in order.
The clear draw here is the acting, and true to their collective potential the core septet come through. As he did in Les Misérables, Hugh Jackman howls with intensity and pops his veins (though his covered scalp hides the one on his dome), this time as desperate Pennsylvania father Keller Dover. Frantic after his daughter and that of his best friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) go missing after Thanksgiving dinner, he takes the law into his own hands after the police let simpleminded prime suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) free for lack of evidence and the testimony of his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo).
Abducting Alex and imprisoning him in an abandoned building, the fathers’ anger bubbles over, notably in a superb exchange where Franklin holds Alex while Dover threatens him with a hammer. Wisely keeping the take unbroken, Villaneuve encourages attention to dart between the three players, producing an elevated suspense with the entire trio bringing their best. In another sustained shot, the aftermath of that encounter, Alex’s puffy, beaten face, forms one of the year’s more frightening images.
Prisoners is a steady string of such scenes, with the respective wives/mothers (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) complementing and sometimes usurping their men. The film is also somewhat of a showcase for Jake Gyllenhaal as the chief investigating officer, Detective Loki. Blinking hard and rocking Bobby Cannavale’s greasy Blue Jasmine haircut, he’s an important constant amid the familial turmoil, yet frustrated in his own right. A good deal of this stress comes from keeping tabs on Dover, whose increasingly risky and self-destructive behavior threatens to derail what legal progress the police have made.
The fairly large cast and surplus of information swirling between them means little is known about each character outside of the case, but they each more or less serve his or her respective purpose. Where Prisoners goes wrong is in getting to the bottom of what it all means. The central clue is that of a labyrinth, an image included in the film’s poster and practically illuminated with a spotlight when seen on a medallion around a corpse’s neck. Neglecting the detail for a frustrating hour or more, Aaron Guzikowski’s script reintroduces the concept with creepy suspect Bob Taylor (The Dark Knight‘s David Dastmalchian) who buys children’s clothing in some half-assed copycat scheme involving a “famous” book and his own troubled past. Sloppy exposition fails to tie it all together, hinting at the labyrinth’s role yet leaving Taylor’s purpose and that of a priest clumsily vague. Combined with some ridiculous Bond villain tell-all, the forced answers fail to match the generally thoughtful build-up, letting the film down when good writing is needed most.
Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
Prisoners is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.