It has been suggested that Prisoners is nothing more than a genre piece; an extended episode of Criminal Minds or Law and Order or any of the other police procedurals that pockmark the weekly television schedule, albeit with better acting and higher production values. Furthermore, it has been said that Prisoners is simply another opportunity for Hugh Jackman to perfect the angry avenger persona that he has articulated so well in his multiple portrayals of Wolverine. Whilst there might be some truth to such claims, this does not necessarily mean that the first Hollywood production from Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve fails to resonate as a piece of engaging drama.
Make no mistake, as Keller Dover, Jackman is a very angry man. Initially, this is understandable and we can forgive his histrionics given that his daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) – along with neighbour’s daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) – has disappeared without a trace. Dover is manic in his desperation to find her and little obstacles like justice and the law won’t stand in his way as he takes matters into his own hands, a decision that puts him at loggerheads with detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and could potentially compromise the investigation. Any sympathy we may have for Dover soon dissipates as we learn more about him, which is somewhat problematic because you don’t really want him to be rewarded for his actions, which in turn means that you are kinda hoping that his daughter isn’t found safe and well, as messed up as that sounds. In fact, Dover is so over the top in his extreme measures to secure information from prime suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) that you start to feel sorry for Jones, even though it is distinctly possible that he may have committed the crime despite having been released from custody due to a lack of evidence.
Joy’s parents Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), distance themselves from Keller, with whom they have enjoyed a strong friendship. In fact, it is a social gathering of the two families from which the girls disappear. Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello) remains oblivious to pretty much everything that is going on around her. Both Davis and Bello are underutilised, with the latter’s character confined to either fits of hysterics or sedated mumblings in most of her scenes. Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, is effective as Loki, a solitary detective seemingly disconnected from real emotion. With a perfect track record, Loki is under pressure to find the girls whilst hamstrung by the somewhat clichéd Captain O’Malley (Wayne Duvall). Also in the mix is Academy Award winner Melissa Leo (Frozen River, The Fighter) who is, as always, excellent as Paul’s “aunt” Holly.
Lensed by 10-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film is suitably eerie with dark lighting, rain galore and a brooding atmosphere that is sustained throughout. The mood and narrative have been compared with Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, which is quite apt as both films are elevated above the ordinary by strong performances and the moral complexities of the story. There are scenes that will make you wince and there are several genuine edge-of-your-seat moments, but the film is longer than it needs to be at over 2½ hours and, despite this, there are several plot contrivances and key points that are not explained well, if at all.
Universally acclaimed for his previous film Incendies (2010), Villeneuve has again proven himself an accomplished filmmaker despite a few missteps along the way, which may well be as a result of compromises to meet studio expectations. Prisoners is a dark, haunting experience that is exceptionally gripping at times. To his credit, Villeneuve has presented an ending that offers considerable ambiguity with regard to Dover’s fate, leaving the viewers to determine in their own mind what might, or should, happen to a man whose actions will no doubt leave audiences divided.