Prisoners forces viewers to question their morals


‘Prisoners’ has many characters trapped in their own physical and mental prisons, but will audience members feel just as trapped?


What lengths would you go to if your child disappeared and the only suspect was released by the police due to lack of any tangible evidence? That is the question the audience must answer as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) take matters into their own hands in Prisoners.

After the daughters of both Dover and Birch disappear on Thanksgiving, after being told not to go near a battered old motor home parked in their neighborhood, and after the driver of the motor home, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is released into the custody of his aunt (an almost unrecognizable Melissa Leo), Dover abducts Alex, takes him back to an abandoned apartment building (where Dover grew up), and begins various methods of “interrogation” to find out where the girls are. Dover drags Birch along for backup, but the police then find another suspect with much stronger evidence connecting him to the crime.

Is Dover right about Alex? Or has he gone so far down the rabbit hole over the course of five days that nothing could sway his mind about Alex’s innocence? And if Dover is right, does the means justify the end? Is torturing a confession out of someone worth the presumed jail time that will come with it? The viewer of Prisoners is going to be asked to think about what decisions they would make in this situation, and determining right from wrong may not be as easy as one would suspect.

The subject matter is so dark that it’s hard to really say whether this is a “good” film or not.

Prisoners is directed by Denis Villeneuve, and this is his first major Hollywood film (his previous French-Canadian film, Incendies, was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2011). Villeneuve turns in a long (nearly two hours, fourty-five minutes), assured, troubling, gripping film that he stands behind 100% (a letter was read at the screening asking that any blame for the film rest solely on his shoulders …. even though it was written by someone else). Unfortunately, the subject matter is so dark that it’s hard to really say whether this is a “good” film or not. It’s certainly not the “feel good movie of the year.”

On the negative side, it’s certainly not an original concept. (The fact that it reminded me a lot of Mystic River doesn’t help.) We’ve seen plenty of abduction movies where a parent or spouse goes vigilante to get back their loved one, but the lengths that Keller Dover goes to for answers are quite horrifying. The fact that he drags his neighbor in on it, at first against his will, is also disturbing. But the whole time, you’re left to wonder, “would I go that far if I truly thought the police were wrong?”

Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover might frighten the Wolverine with his intensity.

For his part, Jackman’s Keller Dover might frighten the Wolverine with his intensity. It’s a role unlike any Jackman has played before, and it truly is a tour de force as he has to go from total rage to weary, worried father when he gets home to his wife and son, to pent up disdain for the cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) who doesn’t seem to be doing his job and spends more time following Dover than the suspect. I think Jackman’s performance will touch a nerve, especially in the wake of the recently discovered and recovered kidnappees in Cleveland, and he’s almost certain to get some awards consideration.

Terrence Howard gives a very subdued performance and he seems like he’s coming apart at the seams as the days of torture wear on and he has to lie to his wife as to his whereabouts (searching the woods for the girls is the best excuse he’s got). Viola Davis has a smaller, but pivotal role, as Howard’s wife who undergoes her own Dover-like change when she learns what’s been going on. Maria Bello doesn’t get to do much but play drugged up and weepy, while Melissa Leo is the seemingly kind, older woman who has lived her own life of tragedy. Gyllenhaal is good as the cop, Detective Loki (god of mischief?), but his constantly twitchy eyelids almost makes him seem like a suspect (either that or he’s suffering from PTSD from his years on the force and a record of 100% for solving his cases … that’s got to take a toll on a guy).

Prisoners is definitely not an easy film to sit through.

Prisoners is definitely not an easy film to sit through. Audience members at the screening were split, most in favor but many just really hated it. It’s definitely not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, and it may be especially difficult for parents of young children to sit through. My recommendation is to go for the performances of the terrific cast and the assured direction (there is a race to the hospital through a crowded, slush-covered avenue that will have you breathlessly on the edge of your seat), but take into consideration the very dark subject matter.


Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/Warner Bros.

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