Prisoners is too much of a brilliantly good thing. For fans of tense drama, award-worthy acting and confident, steady directing, the film is like a day at the carnival. But much like gorging on cotton candy, funnel cakes and ice cream, it leaves you wondering how much more you would have loved it if only you’d been able to take in a lot less.
Keller (Hugh Jackman, The Wolverine) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello, Grown Ups 2) and their children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette, Lost) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), celebrate another Thanksgiving with their close friends. Franklin (Terrence Howard, Lee Daniels’ The Butler) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis, Won’t Back Down) and their children Eliza Birch (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyle Drew Simmons) are all in tow for a neighborhood dinner.
After an enjoyable evening, the families are ready to wind down, but Anna and Joy are nowhere to be found, prompting a frantic search for an RV the children spotted earlier.
Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) takes the case and quickly finds the RV and its childlike occupant. As the emotionally stunted Alex Jones, Paul Dano delivers an appropriately creepy performance.
Alex claims he doesn’t know anything about the girls’ disappearance and his aunt (a reserved Melissa Leo, Oblivion) backs his account, saying he has the mentality of a 10-year-old — hardly the mind of a ruthless kidnapper. Keller isn’t convinced and starts questioning if there’s any limit he won’t cross to find the girls.
Director Denis Villeneuve establishes a tense, edge-of-your-seat mood thriller that peaks early and drags to a frustrating final act.
With a 153-minute run time, the tension in Prisoners is a bit overbearing. It’s like watching the director’s cut that goes a bit deeper into the character development. It’s filled with scenes the filmmakers loved, but realized weren’t essential for the final cut. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski includes two subplots that could easily have been ditched without affecting the story.
The length allows some logic gaps to seep through that you otherwise may not have noticed had Villeneuve been able to maintain that race against the clock pace.
Villeneuve creates such a vivid atmosphere that he strips away that feeling you’re watching a movie. The lack of accompanying score for most of the film also aids the real world feel. Prisoners’ excellent ensemble shows the numerous emotions a family endures through such a taxing ordeal.
Jackman puts in the first serious bid for 2013 award consideration with a searing, gut-wrenching performance. Every year it seems Jackman outdoes himself, but with this performance, he’s the man to beat for the Oscar. It’s going to take a phenomenal effort to surpass him. And Daniel Day-Lewis doesn’t have a movie coming out this fall.
Some audience members may take issue with the ambiguous ending, but it works in the context of the film. In the end, I was really torn with Prisoners. There’s so much to love early on, but the second half ruins a lot of it for me.
I’d recommend seeing Prisoners solely for the tremendous performances and Villeneuve’s impressive direction.
Rating: 5 out of 10
Photo Credit: Wilson Webb/Warner Bros. Pictures