Child abductions have become an ever growing atrocity across the globe. When we see new reports about such cases, all we can think about is how tragic it is and imagine the horrors that could befall these children. In doing so, we realise that the parents must be in their own personal hell, thinking the same terror only a million times worse. In Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, this dramatic and nerve-wrecking experience for a parent is showcased to us, full of mixed emotions and forces you to ask yourself just how far you would go to get your child back.
During a happy and friendly thanksgiving dinner, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) discover that their two young daughters have gone missing. Within 24 hours of their disappearance, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case and a suspect is arrested, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). However, due to the lack of evidence and the fact Alex has the mental IQ of a 10 year old, making him highly unlikely to have committed the kidnapping, the police are forced to let him go, much to Keller’s dismay. As Loki continues with the investigation and days pass, Keller becomes more and more desperate and irrational in wanting his happy family back that he takes matters into his own hands.
From the poster alone, Prisoners promises a thrilling and dramatic plot with a band of Oscar nominees to make it so. As Keller, Jackman portrays a blend of brute force and anger he has picked up from playing Marvel’s favourite mutant, Wolverine, with the intensity and array of emotions he gives with roles such as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables and Tomas in The Fountain (and he didn’t even have to shave his head this time).
Similarly, Gyllehaal’s Loki reminds audiences of his role in the similar style thriller, Zodiac. The difference being that he portrays a more central and mature role in this crime caper. Loki is shown to be a lone cop by choice due to his own personal traumas, meaning he’ll work on his own, eat on his own and do everything his way. At first, Loki can be mistaken as not taking an emotional interest in the case, particularly when smiling inappropriately at Keller when discussing his daughter’s safety. But as the case goes on, Loki does get emotionally attached and is constantly tested and frustrated when he reaches dead ends and reminders of his past.
While the acting skills of Gyllenhaal and Jackman are fully utilised, some of the supporting characters slip away in the audience’s memory. An example being Howard’s character, Franklin, who despite being an Oscar nominee as well, is left primarily at the sidelines. But other cast members, like Dano, redeem writer Aaron Guzikowski’s thriller, managing to change our view of his character when playing the chilling and dark prime suspect and the poor, undeserving and tormented prisoner he later becomes at the hands of Keller. All this is achieved with little dialogue from Dano. A clear case of how less is sometimes more.
Performance aside, the actual aesthetic atmosphere of Prisoners is breathtaking and powerful. The use of deep string music acts as a continual hint towards the sinister and dark nature afoot in this case. Elaborate camera angles and fades to black acts as points of interests as well as teases for the audiences where not every little detail is allowed to be shown or told, (which can either be a positive or a negative depending on your point of view).
Sadly Prisoners is a little long winded and is left unredeemed by a twist that is not exactly an ‘OMG’ moment as it is in Fight Club or The Usual Suspects. The fact that it does not utilise all the side characters within its 2 hour 33 minutes run time is not the fault of Villeneuve’s direction but more of Guzikowski’s writing, or perhaps of Joel Cox’s and Gary Roach’s editing. Nevertheless, Prisoners is clever and traumatic in the sense that it explores how the child is a physical prisoner but their parents are psychological prisoners that can break down and become monsters like the kidnappers themselves.