'Prisoners' manages to engage with its leads

Jake Gyllenhaal stars in "Prisoners."
September 29, 2013

For a movie you may not want to watch more than once, there are many things about “Prisoners” that will pay off with repeated viewings, which may take place if you’re feeling just too happy with life.

I say its re-watchability is limited not because it’s a bad film, but the combination of its heavy themes (child abduction, vigilante retribution), bleak atmosphere (a wintry Pennsylvania setting), and epic length (almost three hours), does not exactly make for a merry movie night (in theaters or at home).

It does, however, manage to sustain interest throughout, thanks in large part to a stellar cast and a director who smartly dials back the tricks and films in a style that matches its dank, shadowy themes and landscapes. Quebec-born director Denis Villeneuve seems to have a lot more on his mind, with frequent allegorical references and subtle signals that will undoubtedly be dissected on film message boards for heartier audiences who wish to devote more time wading through its murky waters.

“Prisoners” opens on an overcast, snow-speckled Thanksgiving morning when Keller Dover (played by Hugh Jackman) and his teen son are bonding over the boy shooting his first deer. They return to wife Grace (played by Maria Bello) and young daughter Anna (played by Erin Gerasimovich) before all heading over to their longtime friends’ house for a holiday feast.

Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the neighboring Birch family who also have a teenager and young daughter who all play together throughout the home. The youngest gals ask their parents if they can merely walk across the street back to the Dover home to get a toy, and from that point, they vanish.

Within minutes of parents searching in the pouring rain, the local police are notified, involving Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), who is inked to the hilt and has perhaps been battling some childhood demons of his own.

“Prisoners” works best the less you know about it when you purchase the ticket. I will only add that it also stars Paul Dano as yet another eccentric lad and Melissa Leo in another role requiring quiet fury.

Despite its rather cumbersome runtime, the film never feels as though it’s padded. It uses the time to purposely lead us (and its characters) down some rather dark roads that are dead ends in terms of outcome, but perhaps add to its overall statements.

There are also some curious flaws found within the film, though.

For example, the film goes to great lengths to remind us what a survivalist Keller claims to be: hoarding everything from batteries and food to gas masks in the basement. But when it comes time to put those skills to the test, he makes some really dumb decisions that would elicit a facepalm from a man who claims to be “prepared for anything.”

Similarly, as a detective who has "never lost a case," Loki seems to miss some rather obvious clues in this tiny town.

Those grievances aside, "Prisoners" still manages to engage with its leads, even if Jackman's lead character displays all the warmth of a honey badger. And director Villeneuve soaks the film in atmosphere that creates a feeling of dread throughout. He's also made a number of choices with character names, professions and appearances (Loki, a Norse god who betrays other gods; the character's prominent Masonic ring; Keller is a carpenter) that undoubtedly could be picked apart for further discussion, but that would require a commitment of sitting through the film another time...something I'm just not ready to do for a while.

It's being oversold as the next "Silence of the Lambs," but I think that's more from audiences starved for adult thrillers after a summer's drought. It is a well-crafted, well-acted reprieve for those who enjoy a diet of red herrings with a side of chills.

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