Prisoners is a rarity of sorts for crime thrillers because it has a stronger final hour than its set-up. Coming in at 150 minutes, this is a dense, all-encompassing film that’s uncompromising in its look at the destruction of self that can occur when a child is kidnapped. The film opens with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family heading over to their friend Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) home for Thanksgiving. The family’s younger daughters enjoy playing together, so the older siblings take them out throughout the suburban streets of Pennsylvania to play. The younger ones stumble upon an RV, want to climb it, but their siblings don’t think it’s a good idea, so they head back. Later on, after dinner and when the parents are feeling their drinks, the girls want to head back home; in reality, though, they head to the RV without supervision and disappear.
The inciting incident, and most of what we’ve seen in the previews, occur very early on, only reaching the 45-minute mark. After the children are declared missing, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) comes in to investigate. Their first suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has the IQ of a ten-year old but owns the RV that was seen on the street. Logic dictates he has to be guilty. He lives with his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo), who seems protective of Alex and says he would never hurt a fly. Keller doesn’t buy into any of this, particularly when Alex is singing a song that the girls were singing on Thanksgiving, so he does the only emotionally logical thing: he kidnaps Alex. As Loki (I promise that’s his real name) continues his search, he finds numerous new suspects, while Keller tortures Alex in hopes of finding his daughter.
Prisoners is a relentlessly gripping film, primarily because it remains so sound by its conclusion. It could be tightened, with about twenty minutes of filler that could be cut in the film’s center, but Villeneuve guides the film through similar settings and character motivations to make the film feel plausibly unpredictable. Roger Deakins, the brilliant cinematographer, has crafted one of the most gorgeous films I’ve seen all year; it looks like an award-winner amongst his finest work. And while Jackman has the showier, heavier role which he masters, Gyllenhaal’s performance is more impressive; it’s quieter, more nuanced, and less fleshed out. His character’s an enigma of sorts, but he shines in these films (some of his best work was in 2007’s Zodiac). The film’s twists near the end make narrative sense, which makes Prisoners a damn fine crime thriller that puts more emotion in than most.
Grade: ★★★★ (out of 5)