In a bleak, wintery middle America, two children are abducted; the prime suspect, a retarded man driving an RV is released for lack of evidence, so the anguished father (a blue-collar Hugh Jackman – X-Men, Australia) kidnaps and tortures the man for a confession.
Detective Loki (a captivating Jake Gyllenhaal – Source Code, Donnie Darko), blinking and twitching like a neurotic Columbo, belies his ‘star’ status by bungling a twenty-minute investigation with a plot hole so heinous, he should be fired long before the incident that will end his career.
Meanwhile there’s a drunken priest with a body in his basement and a creeped-out loner at the candle-lit vigil. You almost forgive this Fargo-inspired thriller its faults…
With a European sensisbility imparted by director Denis Villeneuve in his first English-language movie, there is also something of the macarbre of Silence of the Lambs and more than a touch of Scandi-noir drama.
While Loki meanders aimlessly about his small-town investigation (the fastest-abandoned search for two missing girls in history) and arguing with his Captain, Keller Dover (an intense but less than convincing Jackman) crosses a moral line as a righteous man enacting righteous violence. His self-sufficient, all-American survivalist rendered impotent by the kidnapping and getting more desperate as the days tick by.
Off-kilter, dis-orienting and in a moral quagmire, Prisoners is not an easy watch. We are complicit in Keller’s kidnap and torture of the suspect who gives him an early clue; we’re invited to ask – what would you do?
On the fringes of the cast, Maria Bello (A History of Violence) excels as the mother quietly falling apart under the strain; Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are Franklin and Nancy, neighbours and parents of the other missing girl, uncomfortably complicit in Keller’s act of desperation.
The script by Aaron Guzikowski is nicely understated, never gives in to hysteria, but is not afraid to shock either. Although the running time never drags, the plot points converge neatly in the final act and the characters are layered and involving, you still guessed whodunnit inside twenty minutes. It’s an ambitious, left-field thriller reminiscent of the Gere/Danes movie The Shepherd.
But I just can’t forgive the sheer sloppiness of the police procedure that outside the movies would have wrapped up with an arrest in twenty minutes. Here, the omission is a vital plot device to see us through the other two hours. It’s a wonder the wunderkind detective has even survived this long.
So the movie becomes about the journey, under leaden skies, rain, sleet and snow, with a couple of interesting twists along the way. For all it’s strengths, Prisoners is less than its parts. RC
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Running time: 2 hr. 33 min.
Genre: Thriller, Drama
Cast: Jake Ghyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Pal Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis