A dream-like Thanksgiving dinner among two families, the Dovers and the Birches, turns nightmarish when six-year old Anna Dover and her best friend Joy Birch suddenly disappear. Police are dispatched. Loner detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) promises the two families their safe return.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) has other ideas….
A young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) was seen driving a rustic trailer van in the neighborhood when the girls went missing. Did he take them? Does he at least know who did? Whatever lengths you'd think you'd go to find your little girl, Keller will exhaust by the film's end. How far would you go?
Denis Villeneuve directs a stellar cast that includes Jackman, Gyllenhaal, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo and Dano. The script by Aaron Guzikowski is not without faults but overall is a powerful example of how to do a thriller right. The film's title alludes to more than just the little girls. Way more.
Five ways Prisoners takes hold:
1. Best visuals since Se7en. When you can watch a Law & Order marathon 24/7 on TNT, a film like Prisoners needs to elevate the look and feel beyond television-sized budgets. And it does so. DP Roger Deakins (Skyfall) keeps the sleepy Pennsylvania suburb rain-soaked and creepily barren. A desperate car chase in a crowded street is unforgettable.
2. Strong Supporting Cast. Gyllenhaal and Jackman do most of the script's heavy lifting since the story mostly focuses on their characters. Still, everyone involved leaves a mark. Viola Davis, as she did in her Oscar-nominated performance in Doubt, makes the most of her limited screen time. Terence Howard displays a level of vulnerability that's as rare for the actor as Jackman's newfound intensity.
3. Dad's a Great Liar. "Rage-filled" accurately describes Jackman's best performance ever as a the Dover patriarch who will stop at nothing—not even scalding hot water on a person of interest (Dano)—to find his daughter. That he's so convincing at lying to the police, his friends and family is an unnerving bonus.
4. Child Abductors: The new Serial Killers. Back in the heyday of The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en, studios were unleashing numerous demented murderers to frighten moviegoers. (Remember Jennifer 8?) Recently, with films like Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River, audiences are lured back by the disappearance of sons and daughters. The race to find the child intensifies the ticking-clock aspect. Like the thrillers of the '90s, many of these stories don't end well...
5. Length, Third Act Issues. Prisoners is very much a slow burn. We get to know everyone involved. A lot. The film has a run time of two and a half hours. Yet this is not a butt-numb-a-thon. The quieter moments, like witnessing the toll the long days take on mother Grace (Bello), are genuine. Some late-twist revelations might induce a bit of eyeball rolling, but overall it's well worth the journey.