It’s every parent’s nightmare: a child goes missing and the police are unable to find a legitimate lead. As the days drag on, suspects come and go while the media has a field day with such a lack of closure. Before long, the adults have to consider the worst case scenario — that their baby is never coming home. It’s the stuff of real life tragedy and more than enough to fuel a film like Prisoners. Now add in a survivalist father (Hugh Jackman) hell-bent on getting his revenge, a police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) unusually committed to solving the case, and a perplexing “person of interest” (Paul Dano) who may or may not know what happened and you’ve got a thriller overstuffed with cinematic potential. In this case, there’s way too much.
Keller Dover (Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and their young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) to the home of Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) and their children Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) for Thanksgiving. After the meal, the littlest ones insist on going outside. A few hours later, everyone is in a panic. Anna and Joy have not come home. Remembering a strange looking RV parked in the neighborhood, they contact the police and Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is put on the case. He finds the vehicle and arrests the simpering manchild, Alex Jones (Dano), inside. When the interrogation goes nowhere, the suspect is released, angering Keller. He decides to take matters into his own hands, kidnapping Alex and torturing him to “get the truth.” In the meantime, Loki looks into possible leads, few of which center on the man Keller is brutalizing.
With its cast of Oscar winners and nominees, its slow burn style of suspense, and its genuinely engaging premise, Prisoners should be an early awards season contender. It’s got acting in abundance, a somber, serious approach, and a mystery that unravels in cool, calculated layers. So why isn’t it better? Why does it feel so flat and flawed? Well, for one thing, director Denis Villeneuve (responsible for the 2012 Best Foreign Film contender Incendies) takes too long getting to his numerous points. At 153 minutes, the movie feels overlong and unnecessarily dragged out. Then there is the obvious second act red herring. We meet a man — played by David Dastmalchian — acting odd during a candlelight vigil. His eventual story arc takes up a great deal of time for a limited, and in some ways, illegitimate payoff. You’d figure a film centering on child abduction would establish the community’s past problems with the issue. Not here, not even after a pedophilic priest is discovered with a disturbing “object” in his basement.
Instead, Prisoners hopes to get by on the “what would you do” moralizing that surrounds Keller’s decision to persecute Alex for the sake of his soul. We learn very quickly that this angry father is a survivalist, doesn’t mind destroying innocent life for the sake of his own salvation (he hunts and listens to Christian talk radio in his truck) and may or may not have had a problem with alcohol in the past. In one particularly telling scene, Jackman visibly winces while Bello wails over her missing child. It’s far more powerful than the pummeling Keller puts on his captive. With Howard and Davis almost immediately cast aside and forgotten (save for their mandatory scenes of handwringing) and the plentiful plot holes in the police procedural (are all post-crime searches so incomplete?) Prisoners sticks with its didactic designs, and by doing so, undermines its entertainment intentions.
There is a great movie buried somewhere beneath Villeneuve’s artistic ambitions and obsession with tone. There’s also a terrific bit of pulp entertainment within his arthouse aura and affectations. Instead of capitalizing on those, Prisoners wants to be operatic and epic. It never quite succeeds.