Prisoners has shades of Clint Eastwood’s Oscar winning Mystic River. In this case it’s a kidnapping, not a murder, that forms the film’s central mystery. But the core question remains the same. Is that oddball—the one who just happened to be lurking in the wrong place at the wrong time—is he really capable of a crime this horrific? And just exactly how far should one go to find out?
Prisoners is not for the faint of heart. It’s dark, it’s gritty, and it deals with a topic that would make most anyone uncomfortable. But at the same time, it’s the stakes set by that gut wrenching subject matter that make the movie, and its underlying question, so urgent and compelling. It sets an eerie tone that the rest of the movie leverages nicely.
On Thanksgiving Day, two six year old girls—Anna Dover and Joy Birch (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons respectively)—are given permission to walk down the street to Anna’s house. They aren’t seen again.
The lead suspect is a developmentally stunted man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who had an RV parked in the area at the time of the kidnapping. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), Anna’s father, is convinced Jones knows where his daughter is. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lead investigator in the case, isn’t so sure. And so start the two men on their diverging paths to find the girls’ kidnapper.
Now all of that could sound a little confusing. If you’re wondering to yourself why the last two paragraphs were mostly just names and actors it’s because this film is chalked to the brim with characters. And there’s more where that came from too, with likes of Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Melissa Leo also adding to the mix.
But that’s part of the glory of Prisoners. Like all good mysteries the movie bombards us with people, both suspects and non-suspects alike, to the point where it’s hard to see the forest from the trees. Then it meanders through multiple side plots and red herrings that are so tense and thrilling in their own right that you don’t mind that some of them may never pan out. Time seems like it’s racing by.
That’s important, because at 153 minutes Prisoners is a long movie. Sure there’s the odd storyline or character here and there that could (and probably should) have been cut. But that’s only in retrospect, after the mystery’s gone and the credits are rolling. Figuring out what’s important and what’s noise is what makes the movie so engaging.
Of course, that’s not to say that Prisoners always pays off. There are at least a few problems with the ending. None are so large as to sink what came before them, but they’re there. The movie loses itself a bit to explain away at least one of its investigative dead ends (with a scene that feels right out of an episode of CSI) and when the final reveal does finally happen the characters tend to spell it out a bit too much in a “here let me tell you my whole plan” sort of way.
But when it comes to finishing up the arcs of the film’s two main leads, the ending gets much more right than it does wrong. Keller in particular chafes the line between right and wrong often in Prisoners, and writer Aaron Guzikowski is smart to leave his final judgement ambiguous. The cut to the credits may rub some the wrong way, but I respect the choice that was made.
On a personal note, I just want to say how refreshing it is to see a writer (or editor, or director – it’s hard to tell what comes from where in a finished film) who knows just when exactly to end a scene. Prisoners never repeats information to the audience or lingers too long on any given moment, and it’s that mastery of the craft I think that stops the film from turning into two and half hours of repetitive trite.
While some of the smarter members of the audience may be able to predict ahead a little—I can tell you without spoiling anything that all the clues are there to be found—the constant uncertainty keeps the action tense. Prisoners may not reach the mastery of a Mystic River, but it’s pretty darn good in its own right.