It’s every parent’s worst nightmare: your child goes missing. Somewhere between your neighbors’ home and yours, she has vanished into thin air. There is a person of interest in the case, who your gut tells you had something to do with the disappearance even if there isn’t enough evidence to hold him in police custody or make an arrest. How far would you go to find out what he knows? Almost every parent I know has said that not only would they die for their child, they would kill for them as well. The new film Prisoners examines what characters do when they are actually put in that situation. To say it in the abstract it one thing; having to actually do it is quite another.
Prisoners is at times a hard film to watch and forces you to consider what your behavior would be given these same circumstances. What I particularly liked about the film was the ambiguity that the story embraces; the viewer has the same limited information to go on as the characters. Much like Hugh Jackman’s character, we don’t know for sure that this man was involved in the abduction. As the action in the movie escalates, that hint of doubt is what makes this an interesting story. It we knew that Alex (Paul Danp) was guilty, it would be much easier to cheer on Jackman. But that uncertainty is more realistic and the possibility that this is an innocent man forces you to constantly re-evaluate your own value system.
The movie is greatly enhanced by its stellar cast. Prisoners benefits greatly from the outstanding actors it assembles – Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Dano, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard and Viola Davis – who bring an authenticity and intensity to the story. Jackman, Gyllenhaal and Howard are particular standouts that do a lot of the heavy lifting of the film. As the fathers of the two girls that are missing, Jackman and Gyllenhaal successfully bring to life the anguish and panic of the two men while also highlighting their ethical limits. Gyllenhaal is quite good as the cop who is tasked with this case; it is a less flashy role than the others, but it helps to ground the film. The scene when he is racing to the hospital is so intense that I didn’t even realize that I was holding my breath until it was over. The women of Prisoners are also very good, but this is predominantly the men’s story. A lesser cast would have derailed this movie, but in the capable hands of these accomplished actors provide just the right emotional tenor to make Prisoners a suspenseful and gritty tale.
However, Prisoners is a good, not great movie. What holds it back is a convoluted ending that in attempting to explain everything is rushed and confusing. The reveal was not totally unexpected, but there was so much to unpack in such a short amount of time that it was ultimately unsatisfying. I don’t know that I fully followed all of it and I’m no dummy. I really didn’t need a full explanation; it didn’t matter why all of this happened, just that it did. The last scene in particular may be slightly polarizing; I didn’t necessarily have a problem with it, but I could see why people would find it unsatisfying.
The film would have also benefitted from just a smidge more character development for the leads. We don’t really have much of an idea of what these families were like before the disappearance. Jackman gives a very powerful performance, but I think that his actions would have been even more significant if we had just a little better idea of who he was before he was put in these extraordinary circumstances. There are hints of this for some of the characters, but not a lot.
Prisoners is also a very long movie, clocking in at almost 2 hours and 30 minutes. That is a lot of time to be wallowing in the darkness and the movie definitely feels on the long side. Cutting the story down a bit would go a long way in making this film feel less like an endurance challenge.
Some other thoughts:
- This is a beautifully shot movie. The cinematography is really spectacular. It is both gritty and lush.
- The film employs a lot of tight shots of Gyllenhaal’s face. That dude blinks a LOT. It’s kind of disconcerting.
- This film further proves that Jackman is a versatile actor; he really can play just about anything.
- Gyllenhaal’s last name in the film was Loki and I couldn’t help thinking of this guy every time it was used:
Prisoners is a compelling film that forces the viewer to think about what they would do in similar circumstances. It may be a step short of a great film, but the excellent performances are not to blame. Jackson and Gyllenhaal lead a fantastic ensemble cast that have created a taut thriller where the pressure slowly builds as the story unfolds. The rushed final act prevents the film from really sticking the landing, but Prisoners is still tells an intense, if sometimes uncomfortable, tale. Parents will hug their children a little tighter after this film.