“Prisoners” stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as two men in search of two little girls who have been abducted on Thanksgiving Day. Though united in their purpose, the men are at bitter odds in their methods. It is a dark, psychological thriller, an unnerving movie that stays with you — for good or ill — after you’ve left the theater. Appropriately rated “R,” its sustained tension and eruptions of violence may engross or repel you, but it sure isn’t kid stuff.
The two male leads are ably supported by Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terence Howard; two other actors, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano contribute important performances for director Denis Villanueve. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s script overflows (or overwhelms) with religious and political implications beyond the boundaries of an all-too-familiar story of missing children and their agonized parents. And cinematographer Roger Deakins superbly employs a palette full of browns, greys, and blacks to attain the aura of fear and depression the story called for.
All that said, this is an ultimately disappointing movie, full of red herrings and plot twists that finally add up to less than the sum of its parts. From the outset and up to its midpoint, the film grips us. Home remodeler Dover Keller (Jackman) and his wife, Grace (Bello), celebrate the holiday at the home of their neighbors, the Birches (Howard and Davis). Settling in after dinner, they realize that their seven-year old daughters, Joy and Anna, have not come back from a trip outside. After a frantic search, their suspicions fall upon a beat-up RV seen in the neighborhood.
The driver turns out to be a young man with the mental capacity of a ten year old. But when police detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) interrogates him, he maintains his innocence. The aunt with whom he lives (Leo) claims he has never had any trouble, and the police find no physical evidence that he is part of the kidnapping. The man (played convincingly by Dano) is released, much to the frustration of both Keller and Loki. But while the detective sticks to the proper procedures, the carpenter — a survivalist who prides himself on his ability to look after his family no matter what comes — takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps and tortures the apparent criminal, attempting to get him to reveal where the girls are hidden. Keller even draws the reluctant Birches into his rage-driven plan.
Meanwhile, the lonely, mysterious Loki follows up other leads, some of which are evidently blind alleys — but are they? The emblem of the maze appears prominently, suggesting the plight of both men and raising the possibility that they will never find an outcome. Some obtrusive religious symbolism also gets dragged in about this time; crosses, confessions, absent fathers, unanswered prayers — Villanueve tosses them in but fails to resolve them. Ditto a veiled reference to torturing prisoners for a “good cause” and what it does to the torturer.
The ending will not satisfy most viewers, leaving some important questions unanswered, though screenwriter Guzikowski uses a tired dramatic device — “the killer confesses” — in trying to clear up some riddles. Given that the film runs almost two and a half hours, the time could have been better spent. But the editing is lax: scenes run too long, plot points are needlessly repeated, a somewhat pointless (albeit exciting) car chase extends the running time. By the overdue end, the audience may feel that they have been imprisoned themselves and perhaps cheated, in the bargain.
Jackman and, perhaps, Gyllenhaal may well receive some Oscar attention for their work here and deservedly so. As fall begins, we are now in the season of Serious Movies, as the studios release what they hope will catch the eyes and capture the votes of Academy members. “Prisoners,” though, is well shy of a great film, sacrificing cinematic clarity and efficiency for a visceral punch.