Here is a movie about kidnapping and faith that’s gripping, wrought with suspense, and superbly shot and acted. It’s got an all-star cast and the plot unfolds naturally, taking us from happy family to broken family, from merry times to desperate times. And what do desperate times call for? That’s right. Beating the crap out of suspects and yelling like an ape. At times it is heavy-handed with its message and its prophecy of impending doom, but it stays true until the third act when everything is revealed and nothing is explained.
I will say that I liked this movie, and I was kept enthralled all the way through, but maybe I was expecting a better revelation at the end. A more… surprising revelation. The first two hours demand so much of us that we are almost bursting at the seams. The only thing preventing us from erupting is a satisfying conclusion. Many viewers of this movie will find its conclusion thoroughly satisfying. I did not. And maybe that’s because director Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins do a splendid job of building up the story to a point that no climax can reach.
Let me try to illustrate what I mean. The beginning introduces us to two very loveable families. Indeed, I loved them a lot. They’re normal, casual, close, and they don’t have kids who use cell phones and PSPs as an excuse not to talk to people. They are the Dovers, headed by Keller (Hugh Jackman), and the Birches, headed by Franklin (Terrence Howard). It’s Thanksgiving, and the Dovers are invited over to the Birches’ for dinner. They live in a cosy neighbourhood where everyone knows each other, and to get from one house to the next, you need only walk. But, as we later discover, such freedom has its price.
These happy moments are, for me, what made me want to invest in these characters. Yes, I knew that the happiness was not to last, but I wanted it to for as long as it could. The children behave. They’re polite and obedient. They’re cute. And the two teenage ones, each from a different family, don’t step into the Hollywood trap of childhood friends falling into a predestined love affair. Everything that happens at this dinner feels natural, and I liked it.
And then things start to get dark. The two little girls, Anna Dover and Joy Birch, go missing. The parents go into a frenzy. Already we are feeling sympathetic, because these are such lovely people. The police are called in, and at the head of the investigation is Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) — ho ho ho — who has never lost a case, and whose excessive blinking and numerous tattoos tell me that he might have been on the other side of the law at some point in his life. Keller and Franklin join the search for their daughters, and after an infantile suspect named Alex (chillingly blank, played by Paul Dano) is caught in a suspicious RV and subsequently released per lack of evidence, Keller kidnaps him and tortures him for information.
Keller becomes a deranged man bent on finding his child. Does he become a monster? When he confines Alex to a space no bigger than a water closet and sporadically sprays scalding water on him, I’d say yes. He drowns himself in alcohol while his wife Grace (Maria Bello) drowns herself in sleeping pills. The Birches disown Keller’s awful tactics and place their trust in the police. Loki, meanwhile, hunts high and low through a fog of low IQ suspects. Every lead he finds thickens the plot and pushes the identity of the kidnapper further into the darkness. I loved it all.
Alas, when Keller goes hunting for the truth and uncovers the real kidnapper, the euphoria subsides and Prisoners falls head-first. What is the problem with this third act? Is it the revelation itself, which is kinda meh? Or is it the kidnapper, whose overacting creates a stark shift in character? Or maybe it’s that we never get to see the two happy families together again? I dunno. Maybe it’s a combination of everything. Faith and religion have no room for heroes. But they definitely have a need for villains.
Best Moment | The Thanksgiving dinner, where everything’s still all right. And I thoroughly enjoyed Gyllenhaal as Loki. Great performance.
Worst Moment | Nope.