Prisoners, directed by Dennis Villeneuve, is a decent film that fails to deliver the punch to the stomach that a film about missing children is expected to deliver. In fact, I was afraid of watching this film. I have a young son and was terrified of the thought of this film and the feelings it might stir up in me. When I watched it, though, it ends up playing it safe and refuses to push the envelope. As such, it was a safe, comfortable watch. That is disappointing.
Be warned. From this point, I am going to delve into SPOILER territory. I don’t typically like to go into them, but for this film, I can’t properly complain about it without talking some SPOILERS. From this point on, be aware that I will be discussing plot points you may not want to know until you watch the film. Consider yourself warned!
BIZZAM!! SPOILER ALERT!!
While visiting their friends and neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terence Howard and Viola Davis), Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) soon discover that their daughter and the daughter of the Birch’s have disappeared. Soon, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put on the case to try to find the children. They soon catch Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a man with the mentality of a 10 year old, who they believe kidnapped the children. With no evidence, the police let Alex go. Keller is convinced that Alex is the culprit and kidnaps him. Keller subsequently begins torturing him to find out where the children are.
So, let’s talk about the great things about this movie. The performances by Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, and Jake Gyllenhal are amazing. Honestly, I was terribly surprised by Jackman. His performance as a father desperate to rescue his daughter at any cost was simply amazing. His performance was so realistic that I forgot he is Wolverine and was fully invested in his transformation from a good, God fearing man into a man consumed by guilt for what he is doing in the interest of saving his daughter. It is a stunning transformation that I honestly believe is Oscar worthy.
While Paul Dano only has a somewhat small role in the film, his performance is staggering as Keller’s prime suspect in the abduction of his daughter. Playing a man with the mentality of a 10 year old, you question whether he is really responsible for the abduction. He has very few lines in the film, but they are powerful when delivered by an actor with such obvious talents. The fact that you question whether he is responsible or not also adds another layer to the film where you actually feel sorry for what Keller is doing to him. There is a fine line where you want to hate him for what you think he did, but you also feel sorry him because of his mentality. I actually began to think of him as a 10 year old and saw what Keller was doing to him as doing it to a child. It is a thin line that is straddled very well in the film.
Another revelation in this film is Jake Gyllenhaal. I have never been a big fan of his. While I was impressed with his performances in Donnie Darko and Brokeback Mountain, most everything else I have seen him is was kind of flat and lifeless. Here, his is impressive as the young but world-weary detective assigned to the abduction. You can feel his frustration at making little to no headway in the abduction. While I have less to say about his performance, it is a strong performance that is also of Oscar caliber.
While I was impressed by those performances, there are other things I wasn’t so impressed with. Terence Howard really isn’t given much to do other than run around and whine. Viola Davis and Maria Bello are resigned to the background, and that is a shame. All three of the actors are very talented and to assign them to basic supporting roles is a shame.
My biggest problem with the film though, is that it fails to take that extra step and punch you in the gut . . .hard. In the beginning of the film, you feel that that is what is going to happen. You feel that this is not going to end well. Ever since Seven sucker punched us in 1995, you cannot tell anymore when a film is going to not end happily. Sure, that adds a bit of trepidation to a film like this, but as you watch this, there is a scene in particular that clued me into how it was going to end. At one point, when Keller is torturing Alex for the location of the children, he busts out a hammer to use on Alex. But he never uses it. He hits the wall and the sink, but never the fingers of the man he feels abducted his daughter. Basically, he steps to the line and backs up. So does the director. When I saw that scene, I knew the film was going to play it safe; and it does. It steps to the line, then backs away, never having the courage to step over the line and into sucker punch territory.
As a father, I really didn’t want to watch a film where the children die. I also didn’t want to watch another torture porn film. As a reviewer, though, and a film fan, I found myself disappointed by the film playing it so safe. In fact, other than the subject matter and language, there is nothing else in here that could prevent it from being PG-13.
Let’s not even mention the silly ending where the reasoning behind the children being kidnapped is explained. It is so silly as to be almost laughable. Honestly, that also steals a lot of the thunder out of this film. In reality, most abductions don’t end well. They also don’t have a silly premise like turning good men against God. It was just utterly ridiculous.
When all is said and done, the film is not terrible. It is bolstered by MASSIVE performances by Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano. It is held back by failing to go over the line into memorable, gut punching territory and a silly ending exposition.
**1/2 out of ****
BIZZAM!! FUN FACTS
- Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale were originally slated to star in the film for director Bryan Singer. They opted to film The Fighter instead.
- Hugh Jackman was originally slated to play the father in The Lovely Bones. He was replaced by Mark Wahlberg.