With an A-list cast, a hot-button premise ripped from today’s news headlines, and a well-respected, Oscar-nominated filmmaker in the director’s chair, Prisoners has a great deal going for it in terms of captivating audiences and leaving them talking and thinking about its themes long after the credits roll.
But in this case, ‘less’ might have served better than ‘more.’ the film’s length at 153 minutes, plus its laborious pacing, make a story that’s already difficult to watch due to its plot and imagery even harder to sit through, and rob the film of the sense of urgency that powers truly great mysteries and thrillers.
When their two youngest daughters disappear on Thanksgiving, two small town Pennsylvania sets of parents — Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis) — frantically take part in the search while trusting the local authorities to do their jobs and bring their children home. At first, the search focuses on a suspicious RV that the kids came across earlier in the day, and when Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds that RV and its driver relatively quickly, it seems to the families that the safe return of the kids is close at hand.
But the young man who was behind the wheel of the camper, Alex Jones, is mentally impaired, and to all appearances has little understanding of what’s happening to him when he’s taken into custody and questioned. After 48 hours, the detective and his fellow investigators are no closer to finding the kids, and without evidence to charge Alex, they’re forced to let him go back to his adoptive mother, Holly (Melissa Leo), and explore other leads.
Watching Alex slip out of the police’s grasp is too much for Keller, who first implores and later angrily demands that Loki charge him with something and get a confession out of him. With Grace collapsing into despair and hours with the children still missing stretch into days, a desperate Keller starts down a path to get the truth out of Alex, a path fueled by impotent rage and a fanatical need to protect his family borne of his own past experiences, a path that will lead him and those who aid him to a dark place in the human soul where nothing, not even the rights of another human being, matters anymore, and all that remains is the worst fear a parent can ever feel.
The central dramatic question for the audience in Prisoners is, of course, “How far would you go if it were your children missing?” As compelling a question as that is — it’s been explored in many, many films and continues to be captivating when brought to life thoughtfully — its resonance with audiences depends entirely on how relatable the primary character facing the question in the film is to the audiences. Hugh Jackman, as he does with just about every role he takes on, commits completely to the gripping rage and desperation that fuels Keller, and it’s a powerful, memorable performance. But writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) gives audiences too many reasons to feel distanced and alienated by Keller’s increasingly violent behavior. What the story needs to be compelling to as broad an audience as possible is an “everyman”, and the more audiences learn about Keller’s past and the more his actions make sense in that context, the less of an everyman he becomes. In comparison, Terrance Howard as Franklin is a far more relatable character — he reacts with appropriate horror and fear at his friend’s behavior — but he’s not on screen nearly long enough, and he’s really just a supporting player here.
As for Gyllenhaal, playing the other primary viewpoint character in the story, it’s a strangely muted performance. He plays Detective Loki as a calm, measured individual, confident in his abilities and restrained in his emotions. In his dealings with the Dovers and Birches, his body language and expressions effectively convey an effort to remain emotionally detached in order to get the job done, and as the film goes on, that emotional detachment appropriately gets more and more difficult to maintain.
Gyllenhaal accomplishes all of this almost too well — that emotional distance, that forced coldness, effectively distances the audience as well, and the whole performance comes off as flat. Reading it from the script, it must have seemed like the right choice, having the detective seem so measured and restrained to contrast with Keller’s barely-contained fury throughout most of the film. But in execution both characters might prove to be difficult to connect to for a majority of viewers.
Director Denis Villeneuve sets all of this against a cold, barren backdrop populated by dead trees, hardened earth, and consistently grey skies, the norm for the onset of winter in rural Pennsylvania. Again, while that tone is logical and consistent with what audiences might expect, it’s dreariness adds to the difficulty of watching the story unfold across a ponderous two hours and thirty-three minutes.
When all is said and done, the film lives up to its title, certainly, as all of its primary characters find themselves imprisoned by the circumstances, either literally or metaphorically, and just how the script sets that up is elegant and artful. But the film effectiveness as entertainment suffers from that same artfulness, that same attention to detail and logic, and that’s a strange thing to say when usually a film’s lack of logic is something that gets heavily criticized.
Truthfully, what Prisoners needed to be a more effective and arresting piece of entertainment was a little less character detail, in order for the characters with whom we spent most of the story to be more sympathetic to a larger audience. But then again, maybe Villeneuve and the producers behind the film weren’t out to make something purely entertaining, and in order to truly examine a hard question, they gave us hard, polarizing characters that weren’t crafted to be appealing to everyone. No doubt, there will be some who walk away from Prisoners debating for hours the merits and faults of Keller, Loki, and the other characters because the question at the heart of everything touched a nerve, got them thinking.
But for just as many other people, the whole thing could be off-putting because those same characters will all come off as remote and unsympathetic, and that’s where the film fails, because don’t you want everyone to be talking about when they walk out, not just a handful of people?
Score: 4 out of 5
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, with Melissa Leo and Paul Dano. Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Running Time: 153 minutes
Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.