Let me out
As the movie poster points out, Prisoners’ entire cast (except for poor Paul Dano at the bottom) has been considered for some sort of acting award at some point in their individual careers. And it shows in fantastic performances across the board, especially from leading men Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Each character seems to be striving toward some goal that contributes to the film’s arch theme – whatever that theme may be. Somewhere in this maze of a story, the film’s meaning slipped into the grim, intellectual hole it dug for itself. The entire time it holds your attention hostage, if only because you’re trying to figure out what exactly you’re watching.
The film’s simple premise (two daughters from a small Pennsylvanian town are kidnapped, Jackman searches for them Neeson-style) quickly complicates itself beyond a high stakes goose chase. After the daughters were last seen playing on a stranger’s RV on their way home to retrieve their safety whistle, highly religious father Keller Dover (Jackman) recruits the help of Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) to find them. Loki tracks the RV and arrests Alex Jones (Dano), a bespectacled man with an IQ of a 10 year old who can not directly be proven guilty, despite obviously being a sleazeball.
After Alex’s release, Dover decides to take the investigation into his own hands, even if it goes against what he believes in. Parents of the other missing girl (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, in underused but effective roles) learn what Dover is planning, though their conflicting morals threaten to ruin his plan, at the expense of the daughters. Meanwhile Loki begins his search of the entire town, starting with Alex’s aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). Working toward the same goal from two different perspectives, Loki and Dover discover the case may be about more than just two missing girls. But while Loki abides by rules and ethics, Dover has alternate, deeply disturbing means to get what he wants.
Gyllenhaal’s nuanced portrayal of low-key Loki stands out in a field of excellent acting. His character’s slow simmer out of quiet control to helplessness is only boosted by his subtle backstory. Jackman’s character is an examination of how far a person will go to achieve something they want, even if it goes against what they stand for. Howard, Davis, Dano, Leo, and Maria Bello (who played Keller’s wife Grace) build together for an excellent supporting cast, though none of them receive ample amounts of screen time.
Unfortunately the cast was tied down by a rambling script that never truly understood the point it was trying to make. The film was packed with conflict and characterization that would have stood well separately if they hadn’t all been tossed and mixed together to make an eclectic product too distracted by everything going on to make a single, solid point. It would probably be more enjoyable after a few watches, if viewers can summon the courage to withstand the 153-minute run time more than once.
The film’s unrelenting sense of impending tragedy keeps viewers on the edge of their seats, whether they’re enticed in the story or trying to figure out what exactly is going on. The film constantly rubs in our faces that no character, let alone the central one, is playing fairly. Who, then, are we supposed to be cheering for?