PLOT: The father of a missing girl kidnaps and tortures the man he believes is responsible for her abduction while a detective doggedly investigates the case.
REVIEW: PRISONERS has a stranglehold on you in the moment; at any given time, it's as taut and gripping as can be hoped for. It is spectacularly made on a technical level and brilliantly acted by its entire cast. And it slowly comes apart as soon as you think about it. The many plot holes and contrivances don't stare you in the face until after you have a moment to breath and walk away from the experience; this isn't a deal-breaker because the film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is so expertly crafted. But, for me, it falls short of greatness because it can't stand up to scrutiny.
The movie's first act is so very good. Set in a perpetually rainy Pennsylvania suburb during Thanksgiving, PRISONERS slowly unfolds a nightmare scenario with gloomy believability: two girls have gone missing, and their respective families are at a loss. A detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, but there are few forthcoming leads. A beat-up RV was seen lurking around the neighborhood, but there's no guarantee it holds any secrets. The case seems to go frustratingly nowhere, until the police are led to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the simple-minded owner of the RV who barely understands the world around him. If he has taken the girls, there's no evidence of it, and he is resolute - in his own childish way - that he has no idea what he's being accused of. The police have to let him go.
But one of the girls' fathers is not buying it. With a penchant for hunting and storing food, water and supplies in his basement in the name of "being prepared," Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) seems like just the man not to f*ck with, despite his gentle facade and family values. He's determined to find out what Alex knows, and soon after the suspect is released from custody, Keller takes it upon himself to kidnap the man-child and trap him in a rundown building, intent on torturing any information he can out of him. Meanwhile, Loki continues to investigate the kidnapping while keeping an eye on Keller, who is clearly near losing his mind.
PRISONERS boldly asks you early on to either embrace Keller's tactics or reject them. Though he seems like a man for whom rage isn't unheard of (there's mention of the fact that he gave up drinking years ago), Keller's violence wouldn't be unthinkable for most parents; who wouldn't do anything possible to save their child? But the calamity here is twofold: Alex, with his feeble understanding of the world, is almost a child himself. Plus, neither Keller nor we as an audience know for sure if Alex is guilty; indeed, almost all signs point away from him. How do we reconcile the actions of Keller, for all his earnest suffering, if he's not even focusing his attention in the right place?
Hand it to Villeneuve, and Warner Bros. for that matter: PRISONERS is allowed to take its time developing its mystery, ensconcing us in a very tangible pit of despair. At 2 hours and 26 minutes, PRISONERS is a deliberately constructed vice that tightens and loosens, tightens and loosens; we watch Keller do some terrible things to Alex, while we watch Detective Loki uncover some similarly gruesome evidence in his investigation. There is no shortage of pain in this movie, physical and emotional; Villeneuve brings us face-to-face with genuine anguish, more so than any Hollywood thriller has in years. The actors are so convincing in their trauma that they must have needed counseling after production wrapped. (Maria Bello, playing Jackman's wife, personifies parental horror as her character slips into an almost coma-like grief.)
So it's maddening trait of the movie's screenplay, by Aaron Guzikowski, to lag behind the extraordinary pack with some very ordinary plot machinations as it moves into the second half; red herrings are tossed our way with little consequence and clues eventually arrive in very convenient fashion. Worst of all, Guzikowski unveils that most unfortunate device of "the talking killer," which is when the bad guy, having been revealed, explains their dastardly deeds and helpfully fills in plot holes for no one other than the audience. It's a really deflating moment in PRISONERS, a movie that has strived for brutal realism throughout and mostly succeeded. The ultimate reasoning for the perpetrated crimes is also fairly opaque; I did not leave satisfied with this conclusion.
Nevertheless, PRISONERS is an impressive film to sit through, even if its running time is a bit on the lengthy side. Villenueve and the brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins bathe this drama in a soggy atmosphere so potent you'll want a warm shower afterward. The mud, the rain-slicked roads, the glistening, leafless trees; it's all palpable. Jóhann Jóhannsson's melancholy score provides a funereal accompaniment to the dire action, while editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach (Clint Eastwood's editors, incidentally) allow the performances to shine without obtrusion. (Although they do orchestrate a handful of effective horror-movie jump scares.)
Jackman is fantastic, playing the tortured and vengeful sides of Keller with equal impact. His eyes bloodshot, his face a mask of weary hate; when someone offhandedly says to him "You look tired," boy, are they ever right. There isn't a single false note in his performance. Just as intense is Gyllenhaal, whose Loki is a humorless cop with crazy eyes and an angry streak that threatens to ruin the case just as much as Keller's does. Gyllenhaal has never played a "tough guy" very convincingly before (at least, not for me), but here he's quite an imposing screen presence; seemingly always rigid, single-minded and, underneath the bravado, quite lonely. (Loki has no friends, family or even acquaintances to speak of.) Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard are thoroughly heart-breaking as the mournful parents, and Dano is alternately creepy and sympathetic as the man who may be evil, or may just be another innocent victim of the crime.