“Prisoners” tries to roll two things at once to create bigger dramatic impacts. The one is about the grief and subsequent anger caused by a terrible incident, and the other one is about an increasingly frustrating investigation process for finding a culprit responsible for that incident. While there are several intense or interesting moments as we can expect from a dark thriller drama involving with kidnapping and (possibly) murder, the movie stumbles as its calm approach clashes with its heavy-handed mystery plot filled with obvious clues and typical plot turns, and the result is uneven and incoherent to say the least despite its good things to be admired.
From the beginning, you can instantly feel that something bad is going to happen. After the quiet but unnerving opening scene showing Keller Dover(Hugh Jackman) and his teenager son Ralph(Dylan Minnette) during their hunt at the forest, the movie moves to the comfortable suburban environment as Keller and his family enjoy the dinner at the house of his friend Franklin(Terrence Howard), but we see the ominous signs all around them – including a suspicious camping car parked nearby.
After the dinner, Keller’s young daughter Anna(Erin Gerasimovich) and Franklin’s young daughter Eliza(Zoe Soul) go out together to find a missing whistle at Keller’s home. When they do not return, their parents are naturally concerned, and their fear and panic are increased as it becomes quite possible that the girls were kidnapped by someone – and they may not see their girls alive again.
The main culprit is quickly arrested as soon as that camping car in question is spotted, but the local police cannot find anything incriminating from the vehicle or its driver, a retarded young man named Alex(Paul Dano). He is virtually a blank page except when he answers to simple questions or blurts out something to be suspected, and that certainly does not help Detective Loki(Jake Gyllenhaal) and others at the police station a lot.
While Detective Loki concludes that there is no solid evidence against Alex despite some suspicion, Keller, who is literally on a full-seething mode, thinks differently. This is a guy who has always prepared for the worst(we later see his garage filled with canned foods and other equipments for survival) but realizes how much helpless he is in this terrible circumstance, and his furious anger is unsurprisingly directed toward Alex just because Alex was initially picked as a prime suspect.
It is possible that Alex is just an odd but innocent man-child taken care of by his aunt Holly(Melissa Leo), but Keller is more convinced of his guilty especially after his public clash with Alex in front of news reporters and policemen. We can have some reasonable doubt on what Alex faintly said to Keller during that moment, but, while overlooking the problems in his household, Keller becomes more obsessed with getting any evidence from Alex. He kidnaps him, and then locks him in an abandoned building, and then tortures him with the reluctant assistance from Franklin, who expresses disgust and doubt at first but helps his friend anyway due to Keller’s bullying certainty.
The movie enters a darker territory as Keller’s method becomes more drastic, but this part goes nowhere while Keller alternatively mulls over his torment and keeps torturing his miserable captive. Hugh Jackman is relentless in presenting the brooding side of his troubled character, and it is sort of fascinating to see how far Keller can go as driven by his grief and following obsession, but Jackman’s gloomy performance gets tiresome as he keeps seething and raging for most of his appearance time.
The better part of the story belongs to the police investigation process, and that is where the story fits well with the director Denis Villeneuve’s cool, detached approach. He keeps the tension level high through subtle ways including careful scene composition, and the cinematographer Roger Deakins amply drenches the screen in the mood of insidious cloudy/rainy days. More puzzle pieces are thrown into the mystery plot including an unidentified body and a bunch of inexplicable maze pictures, and we get several suspenseful scenes such as when Detective Loki suddenly notices a possible culprit and then slowly begins to chase after him.
As a young detective gradually obsessed with his case, Jake Gyllenhaal gives the best performance in the film. While the movie does not tell us a lot about Detective Loki except some background information on his rough adolescent past, Gyllenhaal’s haunting performance fully presents a good, competent cop who probably learned one or two things about the dark side of human nature through his hard personal experience. He instinctively senses that Keller is playing a bad cop(or a bad citizen, shall we say) for himself, but he chooses to stay focused on his main job even though he comes to have a pretty good idea about where Keller is keeping Alex. After all, there are already too many things to handle in his labyrinthine investigation, and we can sense how much pressured he is while he looks more agitated and frustrated.
Despite its long running time(153-min), “Prisoners” was not a boring experience in spite of my uncomfortable viewing condition(I happened to sit on the floor at the back of the screening room), but I kept thinking of better films during the screening. While “In the Bedroom”(2001) and “Mystic River”(2003) delved more deeply and darkly into the grief and devastation resulted from the loss of a loved one, “Zodiac”(2007) more convincingly presented the people gradually consumed by their obsessive crime investigation going nowhere while strewn with countless possibilities.
The movie is not without interesting aspects, but the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is frequently hampered by blatant symbolism and manipulation, and the good actors like Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, and Maria Bello are wasted mainly due to thin characterization. As Keller’s distraught(and heavily medicated) wife, Bello is mostly stuck with her character on the bed, and Howard and Davis do as much as they can do with their thankless accessory roles. Davis, who plays Franklin’s wife, proves again that she is one of the valuable American actresses, and she handles the scene well where her character confronts with what her husband is doing with his friend.
Denis Villeneuve’s previous work was an Oscar-nominated film “Incendies”(2010), which I chose as one of the best films of 2011. Its plot was progressed rather mechanically, and I could see that the story moved from one point to the next point as planned in advance, but it was devastating to watch the movie finally arriving at its inevitable ending. Although it is a well-made and well-acted film, I only observed plot machination from “Prisoners”, and that is why I left the screening room with growing dissatisfaction at last night.