Published Dec 17, 2013Boasting some great performances and taut direction from Quebec's Denis Villeneuve (Polytechnique, Incendies) in his big budget English-language debut, Prisoners is a tense and atmospheric thriller centering on the mysterious disappearance of two young girls. With a lot of talented people working hard to elevate the film beyond an above-grade genre exercise, it's ultimately hampered by a screenplay that holds its cards too close to its chest while manipulating with frustrating red herrings and dead ends.
While Keller and Grace (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) are enjoying a nice Thanksgiving at the house of a fellow couple with close friends Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), both groups of parents have a young daughter disappear from the home. Local detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tracks down an RV that the girls were seen playing around and brings the driver, a soft-spoken man named Alex (Paul Dano) with the intelligence of a 10-year old, into custody.
Denying that he had anything to do with their disappearance even after intense questioning from Loki, he is eventually released to his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo). Keller refuses to believe his innocence though, especially when Alex has a bad habit of saying, or in one instance singing, incriminating things at inopportune times that lead Keller to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, a gruesome discovery made by Loki at a priest's home seems to initially be unrelated, but begins to reveal some intriguing clues that brings the case into greater focus.
In a film teeming with showy performances, Jackman's single-minded intensity stands out above Gyllenhaal's compulsive facial tics and Dano's high-pitched bleat. The plot spends too much time lingering on Keller's endless torture of Alex, meting out only enough information to keep nearly everyone a possible suspect until springing its final twist. Without revealing any spoilers about the identity of the person responsible for the crimes, there appear to be some significant gaps in logic and the usual economy of characters that may cause its hand to be tipped early on.
There are only a couple of disappointingly short documentaries included in the supplemental material. In one, Villeneuve admits how the film could be viewed as a western of sorts, with its central standoff between desperate father and troubled cop. In another, the actors heap upon the screenplay's many complex roles the kind of compliments that would ring as the usual hollow praise, if not for the fact that these are legitimately juicy parts any actor would want to seek their teeth into.