All right, ladies. How much do we love Hugh Jackman? Let me count the ways. The 44-year-old Australian actor sings. He dances. He’s one of those beautiful men who get even better looking as they age. He’s gorgeous dressed up—and positively ripped without a shirt. He’s a devoted husband and father. And, to top it all off, he is reportedly a really, really nice guy.
Casting him as the distraught parent of a missing child in the tense new thriller Prisoners seems a stroke of directorial genius. Jackman’s the perfect gentle giant with great strength (and potential rage) lying underneath.
The premise of the movie is familiar. When the unthinkable happens—two little girls, abducted from their own neighborhood on a Thanksgiving afternoon—an otherwise decent man will do anything to find them. His daughter is the victim of a monster, and he is willing to become a monster himself to save her. Like similar movies from the past (Extremities and In The Bedroom come to mind), Prisoners asks us, “You think you know yourself, but how far would you go?”
With this setup in mind, I expected to meet a protagonist with whom I would feel some connection—a peaceful, civilized man. But, while his love for his family is palpable, Jackman’s Keller Dover is more complicated. An underemployed carpenter in a gray, unnamed Pennsylvania town (the movie was filmed in Georgia), he’s lean and dark, a devout Christian and a survivalist with a fully stocked basement of supplies organized with militia precision. He explains his philosophy as “Pray for the best. Prepare for the worst.” The very first scene of the film has him reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a peaceful wood, right before his son shoots a deer. It’s sudden and brutal, and we get the hint. This isn’t a man you want to mess with.
The police officer assigned to track down the missing girls is one Detective Loki. Although he’s less volatile than Dover, you’d be ill-advised to mess with him either. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent in the role. He first appears as a calming force; he’s never had an unsolved case, and he assures Dover’s wife, Grace, that he’ll find their daughter. As days pass and hope dwindles, he becomes more and more desperate, frustrated by clues that aren’t fitting together and rightly concerned that Dover is a loose cannon.
In Prisoners, his first English-language feature, Academy Award-nominated Québéqois director Denis Villeneuve has woven these two powerful character studies through an intricate and suspenseful mystery. When the girls disappear, the only possible clue is an old RV parked down the street. Early on, the police locate it and take its driver into custody. Alex Jones, played by Paul Dano, is the very model of a potential pedophile. His expression is freakishly vacant and he has difficulty answering even simple questions. Loki is convinced that he’s innocent. Dover is equally certain of his guilt. When Alex is released, Dover takes matters into his own hands. Suffice it say, if you can’t stomach scenes of torture, you might want to miss this one.
But that would be unfortunate, because despite some fairly gruesome onscreen violence, the movie is well worth seeing. There are sufficient plot twists, red herrings, and potential suspects to satisfy, and the freezing rain provides constant atmosphere. In fact, on more than one occasion I thought, “Why would anyone live there?” If the bleak weather weren’t bad enough, there appeared to be an ungodly number of local sex offenders. The movie isn’t what one would call “enjoyable,” per se, but I was pleased when I realized I’d solved the case about 20 minutes or so before either Dover or Loki did.
Jackman and Gyllenhaal are joined by a stellar supporting cast. Maria Bello, as Grace Dover, is the image of anguish. She spends most of the movie in a drug-induced sleep, unable to face what’s happened. Her counterpart, Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl, is played by the celebrated Viola Davis. She reacts differently, attempting to manage the unmanageable, providing the police with additional photos that better show her daughter’s eyes.
Terrence Howard portrays Nancy’s husband, Franklin. Less extreme than his friend Dover, he struggles with a greater moral dilemma. At first he participates in the vigilante “interrogation” of Alex, but, with discomfort and without the same level of conviction. He holds the suspect up while Dover pummels him. He later has second thoughts and considers freeing the young man. His wife makes the decision for them both. “We’re not going to help, but we’re not going to stop him [Dover] either. Let him do what he needs to.”
If, as the director no doubt wants, you find yourself wondering how far you would go, the Birches have provided a saner and in some ways unarguable middle ground. It’s one thing to believe you wouldn’t harm someone who might have harmed your child. It’s quite another to assert that you would go out of your way to save him.
Rounding out the fine cast is Academy Award-winner Melissa Leo as Alex’s aunt and guardian (her views on God are an interesting counterpoint to Dover’s). There are also memorable appearances by stage legend Len Cariou as a pedophile ex-priest and David Dastmalchian as creepy local Bob Taylor who’s just a little too interested in the missing girls.
At 2 hours and 26 minutes, Prisoners is undeniably long. But, it moves very quickly. There’s a countdown inherent in the plot. Statistically, if the girls aren’t found within a week, their odds of survival plummet. Loki and Dover, independently, are racing against time And the audience is racing alongside them throughout.
Overall, the movie is expertly crafted, but the script by Aaron Guzikowski is clunky at times. Certain points are made over and over: “Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old.” “How does someone with an IQ of a 10-year-old drive an RV?” “A person with the IQ of a10-year-old couldn’t make your daughters disappear without a trace.” “He’s innocent; he has the IQ of a 10-year-old.”
Okay, we get it. He has the IQ of a 10-year-old. The audience, however, does not.
Redundancies aside, Prisoners is an excellent movie. It’s smart and suspenseful and the acting is first rate. The movie’s ending is quite literally stunning (when the lights came up in my neighborhood cinema, no one left their seats). The details of Prisoners’ intricate mystery will stay with you, as will the moral questions.