★★ / ★★★★
The Dovers and the Birchs hold a little get-together over Thanksgiving, but what should have been a peaceful and enjoyable holiday turns into a nightmare when the two young girls from each family go missing. The prime suspect is a teenager named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is later discovered to have an IQ of a ten-year-old, because the girls are seen climbing on his RV a few hours prior to their disappearance. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) interviews the suspect but since no viable information can be extracted out of him, he is released after two days. This does not sit well with Keller (Hugh Jackman). He is convinced that Alex is involved somehow and if the police are unable to do their job, he is more than happy to take action.
“Prisoners,” written by Aaron Guzikowski and directed by Denis Villeneuve, has the right texture and atmosphere to tell a grim dramatic thriller, but it is bogged down by an overlong running time—clocking in at around two hours and thirty minutes—and it has very few reasons to do so. Instead of being a lean and mean piece of work, we are made to sit through repetitive scenes involving torture. As a result, the middle part sags and drags. It might have been more effective if there was an extended torture scene that took place in one room and allowed us to absorb the horror of watching someone get beaten until he was black and blue, broken bones and all—at once.
Some might argue that one hundred and fifty minutes is justified to tell the story because it allows us to feel the exhaustion and frustration of the characters. I am not convinced. If this were a more efficient picture with smarts and gusto, it would have found alternative avenues to communicate the psychological breakdown of its main players sans jumping back and forth to Keller forcing Alex to give up information that he may or may not have.
For example, I would not have minded if the material if had spent more time exploring the other parents’ states of mind. The matriarchs (Viola Davis, Maria Bello) are underused. Davis is given more to do by allowing Nancy to react to certain discoveries, but Bello’s character, Grace, does nothing but cry. Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy’s husband, would have been a great supporting foil for Keller but his role is greatly diminished about halfway through. I felt the screenplay struggling to juggle its characters—all deserving of complexity and attention given its fascinating subject matter.
Although Jackman has the more ostentatious role as an increasingly angry father (and he is very good at it), it is Gyllenhaal that shines in my eyes. I enjoyed watching the little ticks the actor has chosen to incorporate to his performance. Detective Loki looks very tired, almost unhappy, but I believed it when he is said to have solved every case he has ever been assigned. The man may take a while to connect the dots but he is very determined and willing to look into all logical possibilities of the case. Because Keller and Loki have opposite temperaments, their consistent clashing is interesting and I wondered to what degree their relationship will change over the course of the film.
We get many remakes of foreign films these days—a significant percentage of them not very impressive. However, I am most interested to see how this story can be interpreted by a French, German, Iranian, or Japanese cast and director. I want to see an interpretation that is less in-your-face and more contemplative. Here, the majority of the emotions are handled with an exclamation point. Subtlety is not the picture’s strength despite a memorable final shot.