'Prisoners' ends up holding audience hostage
“Prisoners” is a mystery told with such skill that, just when you think you've figured it out, it finds new blind alleys for you to visit.
Well-cast and wonderfully acted, it's a child-kidnapping thriller with sorrow, intrigue, psychology and just enough urgency to suck us in. Then, it almost outsmarts itself with a draggy, “let's explain it all” third act that undercuts the big theme it wants us to ponder.
The grey skies of a Pennsylvania winter set the tone. The Dovers and the Birches are friends and neighbors. Remodeling contractor Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is man's man, something of a survia valist, teaching his son Ralph to hunt and “be ready” in case things get hairy and society starts to break down. With his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), he's raising a teen (Dylan Minnette) and a tyke, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), in their middle-class subdivison.
The Birches (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) have the Dovers over for Thanksgiving, so that tiny Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) can play with her best pal, Anna. The teens, Ralph and Eliza Birch (Zoe Borde), are in charge of the little girls, who are young and trusting and prone to not see the risks in playing on that strange, ratty old RV parked down the street.
The girls disappear, and, as their mothers stumble into shock and the men, especially Keller, hurl themselves into a frantic search, a loner police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes charge of the case.
Keller knows too many statistics about how long such abducted kids survive, the increasingly long odds facing them, to control his temper. Detective Loki is sure to get under his skin.
They nab a suspect, and it's easy to mark Alex Jones (Paul Dano) as the perpetrator. Creepy, uncommunicative, a veritable thick-glasses cliche of a pervert. Keller, a paragon of moral certitude, is sure of it. And when the cops can't make a case, he takes matters into his own hands. That's when “Prisoners” turns truly disturbing, grisly and morally ambiguous.
Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) give each major character moments of pain, grief and rage. Grace cracks up. Nancy (Davis), a veterinarian, shuts down. Franklin (Howard) feels helpless and Keller just lashes out. “Prisoners” gives everybody a history.
But, despite the occasional chase or chilling moment during surveillance, “Prisoners” loses urgency as it drags on. “Prisoners” is never less than engrossing. It'll keep you guessing. It's just too bad that the last 30 minutes make us feel like the prisoners here.
Roger Moore is a staff writer for McClatchy-Tribune News Service.