R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
Running time: 146 minutes.
Two stars out of four.
“Prisoners” has heavy-duty arthouse pretensions but, if we’re being honest with each other, it’s really just a high-falutin’ B-grade kidnap thriller.
It’s got lofty aspirations but it also wants to wallow in the muck — to thrill you and sicken you in equal measure while also being About Something. But if you strip away the pedigree of the people involved in front of and behind the camera, what’s left is a twisty kidnap picture filled with all the obligatory creepy suspects, red herrings and icky imagery.
Director Denis Villenueve also tries to add an air of importance by dragging out the developments in this police procedural for a good, solid half-hour longer than necessary. The French-Canadian filmmaker is one of the many Oscar nominees at work here — for 2011’s “Incendies,” about a Quebecois woman who travels to her mother’s Middle Eastern homeland after her death to uncover the mystery of her life. As in that foreign-language film, Villenueve creates a creeping sense of dread. You won’t know where “Prisoners” is going for the duration, but it could have been even more gripping if it had been tighter.
Instead, the characters in Aaron Guzikowski’s script have the same conversations with each other over and over, and usually with increasing volume. This is especially true of our star, Hugh Jackman, as the father who’s understandably desperate to find his little girl after she’s abducted on Thanksgiving. Jackman’s Keller Dover establishes himself early and often as a man of rigidity and principle, from the Christian pop he plays in his pickup truck to the impeccably and thoroughly stocked basement he maintains in his family’s rural Pennsylvania home. When the apocalypse comes, he will be ready on all fronts.
All that prudence goes out the window in a hurry when his 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and her close friend, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), daughter of the Dovers’ neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), disappear while the two families are wrapping up their holiday celebration. (Maria Bello co-stars as Keller’s wife, Grace, who essentially stays drugged up in bed all day after the kidnapping to block out the reality of the family’s horrible fate.)
All signs would point to a dilapidated RV seen earlier on the families’ quiet street, which may as well have the personalized license plate of PERVERT. Curious, the girls had been climbing on it. When police track it down later that night and find that the driver is a dim-witted man-child, they’re certain they have their man. Paul Dano finds yet another eerie loner-weirdo in his repertoire as the suspect, Alex Jones, which is evident the second we see his stringy hair, nerdy wardrobe and oversized eyeglasses.
But Jake Gyllenhaal, as a lead investigator known only as Detective Loki, is an eerie loner-weirdo of a different kind. While Jackman overacts in big, showy ways, bringing menacing elements of both Wolverine AND Jean Valjean to the role, Gyllenhaal overacts in the opposite direction. He’s trying awfully hard to be quiet and quirky, his performance consisting of nervous blinks, neck tats and the slicked-back hair and buttoned-up shirt of a gang member. (Or perhaps a reformed one; Loki makes a passing allusion to having spent time in a Christian boys’ camp.)
When Loki finds he must let Alex go because there’s nothing to charge him with, Keller goes ballistic and takes the law into his own hands. He becomes a kidnapper himself, squirreling Alex away in his late father’s abandoned apartment and beating the crap out of him for information. Basically, he does everything shy of waterboarding the guy, which, as we know from the movies — depending on your perception of “Zero Dark Thirty” — may or may not actually work.
Eventually, he goes so far as to build a makeshift holding cell inside the apartment’s shower — Keller is a contractor, you see — hoping that a combination of claustrophobia and scalding-hot water will persuade him to talk. But he also hates himself for such cruelty. The Birches know what Keller is doing but feel conflicted about whether to help him or report him (Howard and Davis are criminally underused in hang-wringing roles).
Meanwhile, the usually efficient Loki feels frustrated by his inability to solve this particular case. Grace lays in bed all day, sleeping and crying. Melissa Leo, unsettling as Alex’s protective aunt, is stuck in a time warp of loneliness since her husband’s death. And somewhere out there are a couple of scared little girls being held against their will.
You see? Everyone’s trapped. We’re all PRISONERS. It’s very profound.
But the visuals from the great cinematographer Roger Deakins, a 10-time Oscar nominee himself (who should have won this year, finally, for “Skyfall”), maintain a beautifully bleak sense of foreboding throughout. A couple of moments are especially striking: a slab of light across Alex’s eyes from inside the darkness of his cell, and the mess of blood and raindrops obscuring Loki’s vision as he makes a climactic dash to the hospital.
Deakins manages to break free of the film’s self-serious sense of restraint in ways that are superior to the film itself.