For parents, there are few scenarios that inspire more dread than realizing your child has gone missing. Every dutiful mother and father has experienced that acute, fleeting panic that comes when your son or daughter momentarily slips out of sight at a public park or shopping mall, and the thought of it going on for any longer than a few agonizing seconds is something that few care to ponder. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski use this frightening scenario as the launching point for Prisoners, an emotionally taxing, morally complex mystery driven by powerful performances that explore the transformative effects of suffering with an intensity that will leave many -- especially those with children -- deeply shaken.
Six-year-old Anna and her friend Joy vanish on Thanksgiving without a trace. Devastated, Anna's father Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) makes note of a run-down RV that Anna's older brother Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Joy's older sister Eliza (Zoe Soul) had seen parked on their street at the exact time the girls went missing. When the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is swiftly arrested by Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), it starts to look like the lead will pay off. However, Alex, a grown man with the mental capacity of a ten-year-old boy, is quickly released into the custody of his soft-spoken aunt (Melissa Leo) due to a lack of evidence, sending Keller, his wife Gracie (Maria Bello), and Joy's parents Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) into an emotional frenzy as they begin to feel the true gravity of the situation. Knowing that time is not on his side and ignoring Loki's pleas to leave the case to the pros, Keller risks sacrificing his own freedom in a bid to locate the girls before it's too late. Meanwhile, the sudden emergence of a new suspect provides the dogged Loki with just the incentive he needs to keep searching for the two missing girls as the locals begin holding candlelight vigils in support of their families.
At once an intense domestic drama, a carefully structured morality play, and an expertly acted character study focusing on the corrosive effects of anguish left unchecked, Prisoners is, at its core, a mystery that wades into thriller territory while forcing the audience to reflect on how we would cope under similarly straining circumstances. It's not an enjoyable viewing experience -- Keller Dover doesn't possess a "certain set of skills" that allow him to hunt his daughter's abductors through their small town with reckless abandon, and, with a few minor exceptions, levity is virtually nowhere to be found once the girls have vanished and the clock starts ticking. The atmosphere of Prisoners is unrelentingly oppressive as Guzikowski follows Dover down to the darkest depths of a father's desperation, and even with Howard's Franklin acting as something of a moral compass, the writer offers no easy exit as Villeneuve and veteran cinematographer Roger Deakins portray the onset of winter as an approaching season of death and decay.
Had the cast of Prisoners not kept us connected to the story emotionally, the movie would be positively unbearable; to the credit of everyone involved, the actors are uniformly strong. Jackman gives a compelling performance that will likely be looked back upon as a highlight of a prolific and impressively varied film career, Bello portrays the agony and mental disorientation of a distraught mother with an honesty that anyone who has experienced genuine anguish will instantly recognize, and Howard is our anchor as a man who struggles to maintain his humanity while living every parent's worst nightmare. Davis also impresses as Howard's conflicted wife (even though her screen time is too brief to convey any real emotional nuance), and Dano is a taciturn enigma as the man-child at the center of the investigation. Though it could be argued that Gyllenhaal's constant twitching is a distraction rather than an expressive character trait, we still root for him as the detective who has never left a case unsolved, and Leo continues her recent winning streak in a small yet crucial role.
If there's one true criticism that can be leveled at Prisoners, it would likely be the introduction of a character about halfway into the film whose presence admittedly helps to ramp up the tension, yet whose ultimate fate proves more detrimental to the story line than beneficial due to the questions it raises. Given the extended running time of the movie and its heavy subject matter, Guzikowski probably should have kept the story a bit more focused. All things considered, however, it's a minor misstep rather than a fatal flaw; while a second viewing may indeed reveal the character to be more crucial than he first appears, only the most masochistic viewers will ever care to revisit this mystery for a closer look, despite the admirable artistry on display.
cast-crew for Prisoners on AllMovie
- Executive Producer, Unit Production Manager