Keller Dover is an uber-macho survivalist who keeps a basement full of canned goods and assorted Zombie Apocalypse gear all set up in neat alphabetically ordered shelving units. During a Thanksgiving dinner at a friend’s house, both his daughter and his friend’s daughter go missing in an apparent kidnapping. Normally kidnapping movies save the kidnapping for at least a little ways into the movie to establish a pattern of everyday life. This movie instead goes for the shock route of placing the kidnapping right at the beginning of the movie, which I appreciated because it at least skipped past a lot of forced and unnecessary scenes like you would normally get in movies like this foreshadowing the inevitable abductions.
As everyone knows thanks to countless TV shows, most missing children who are not found within 48 hours are never found alive. With this “helpful” information in mind Dover goes into panic mode and instead of cooperating with and helping the detective, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, he goes on the hunt himself physically assaulting suspects and taking matters into his own hands. I won’t spoil too much of what happens here, but basically the plot and theme of the movie show how Dover, who thinks he is prepared for any and everything, only makes things worse with his well intentioned meddling in the situation.
Prisoners plays like an antidote to the type of logic presented in most standard Hollywood revenge movies. Now, I am a fan of the revenge genre, and I grew up with movies that saw the likes of Charles Bronson gunning down tons of baddies who made the mistake of raping and murdering his 17th wife (wives numbering one through sixteen were all raped and murdered in previous movies of course) and now must pay. Hugh Jackman’s character Keller Dover grew up watching those movies as well it seems as when things go horribly wrong in his life after his daughter goes missing, his response is to do what all audiences in movies expect him to do—that being taking over the role of detective, judge, jury, and executioner. Except that in real life when you try that you normally only serve to make a bad mess even worse. In this way this movie does kind of try to have its cake and eat it too. It attempts to portray reality but there is also this very cinematic kind of Silence of the Lambs subplot going on with the kidnapping storyline that firmly plants the movie outside the bounds of everyday reality.
I went into this movie with low to moderate expectations and was very pleasantly surprised by how much it pulled me into its story. This movie is a weird but effective mix of subtlety and sleight of hand as well as some very heavy handed constructions, such as the opening scene with Keller hunting with his son and saying a prayer while reminding said kid to “always prepare for the worst”. (Both this deer hunting scene and the one in Out of the Furnace felt very forced and heavy handed to me. Note to directors, using the metaphor of killing Bambi to set up your intended moral point in cinema is very, very played out. Stop doing it.) The movie is set up like an old Hitchcock thriller that keeps you guessing the entire time and puts forth a number of clues that you never knew if they are meant to be red herrings or if they are in fact integral to the plot. I’m normally able to piece together clues and immediately spot character placements that are designed to set up swerves later on, but in this movie I must admit they ‘got’ me near the end in a big way. Now that being said other people may be able to guess the surprises here better than I was able to, but even if you can, I think this movie does a good enough job at keeping the tension and emotion ratcheted up to such a degree that it will still hold your attention at least.
Terrence Howard plays Franklin Birch, the friend whose house the fateful Thanksgiving day gathering took place in. His job in this movie is to be the sensible voice of restraint against Hugh Jackman’s uncontrolled and circular logic driven rage. Jackman was a great choice for the role of a distraught, rage filled, father here. Of course when you see Jackman you expect the badass action hero to save the day which perfectly plays into the storyline of the movie. Jackman as well as almost all of the actors here , especially the wives, show a lot of emotional intensity. Both the wives here are easily overlooked characters who basically drive the plot. Maria Bello plays Grace Dover whose sense of security being shattered basically goads Jackman’s character into doing the irrational things he does here. And Birch’s wife is the one who henpecks her husband to his senses to keep out of the Dover’s crazy and dangerous plans. Gyllenhaal makes a very good low key detective who just stays on the case until the bitter end. This role here reminded me very much of the reporter role he played in the equally dark and underrated movie “Zodiac” from a few years ago. (Go see that one if you ever get a chance.)
The main suspect is a mentally challenged young man named Alex Jones in what I have to believe is the least subtle use of a character name to take a jab at a real life person in movie history. Jones is played by Paul Dano in a stellar piece of acting that the audience at various times feeling deep sympathy and utter contempt for him. Jones lives with his aunt played by Melissa Leo, who is tremendous in her role here, and whose performance most brought to mind those old Hitchcock styled movies I mentioned above.
I think where Prisoners goes a bit off the rails is in the symbolism department. As I mentioned above, the movie starts out with a big heavy handed hunting scene complete with the Lord’s Prayer being uttered and “really important advice” being given. Then all throughout the movie there is rampant religious symbolism, suitcases full of snakes, a subplot with a priest, and then the eventual reveal of the real kidnapper who (slight spoiler ahead) turns out to be a former religious zealot turned anti-religious zealot. Basically Hugh Jackman is supposed to represent right wing survivalist nuts, and the bad guys are supposed to represent right wing religious nuts. The political undertones are far from subtle there, but the story and everything leading up to the end are top notch. I would have preferred they just dropped the heavy handed political and religious thematic and just told a straight forward kidnapping thriller, showing us frightening reality of the situation as they do in parts here, and leave the hocus pocus and saber rattling to other movies.
Prisoners gets a three out of five: GOOD.