While I can’t speak from firsthand experience, I imagine the greatest fear anyone can have is the potential loss of a child. Nothing must be scarier than knowing that your kid is somewhere out there, perhaps kidnapped by some lunatic, not knowing if he or she is alive or dead.
It’s with this notion that we come to this logical conclusion: movies about child abduction are extremely difficult to watch. They emotionally drain you and make you feel a certain kind of despair that is unrivaled in movies with differing stories. This week’s “Prisoners” is no different. It’s not fun, but it’s gripping and, despite some stumbles here and there, it tackles interesting themes that deviate from your typical abduction story. This is definitely one to see.
Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) are a happily married couple who have two beautiful children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). They’re also best friends with a couple who lives nearby, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), who also have a couple of children, Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). While together one day, Joy and Anna wander off.
When the parents realize they’re not around, they desperately search and try to find them, to no avail. They quickly enlist the help of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to help them find their child. But Keller has his own agenda. Convinced they were abducted by local oddity Alex Jones (Paul Dano), he kidnaps him and tortures him with the hopes that he’ll reveal where the two girls may be.
With that set up, “Prisoners” blurs morality, that line between doing what is necessary and doing what is right. It never necessarily asks the viewer to pick a side, but it makes them understand the desperation in Keller’s actions while also showing them the ugliness that such actions entail. What is morally correct is never in question—clearly he should not be torturing this man—but whether or not his actions are justified will surely split viewers.
And that’s the beauty of “Prisoners.” It tackles the complexity of morality while also encompassing a number of other heavy themes, including coping with grief, vigilantism, acting on emotions in the face of doubt and condemning those with absence of proof. When Keller jumps in his truck early in the movie and the man on the radio quotes scripture about how all men are “born of sin,” you’ll quickly realize that “Prisoners” is not going to be an easy watch; it will indeed make you wonder what you would do in the same situation.
Those are the most interesting aspects of the movie, as, unfortunately, the mystery behind who has the children isn’t the most compelling. Too often, objects are focused on so blatantly that their importance is too transparent and given the film’s thematic complexities, the obvious narrative direction was certainly not going to be the one the movie took.
Thus, it’s fairly easy to figure out who has the kids. If you’re unable to figure it out, the motive behind this mystery villain is so utterly ridiculous, so ruthlessly absurd, so hilariously asinine that it comes dangerously close to turning an otherwise believable and tense film into a joke, so you may find yourself not caring anyway.
Without ruining anything, the finale is such an obvious promotion of religion that if you took the curse words and some of the more egregious violence out of the rest of the film, you could pass it off as Christian. While religious movies are not inherently a bad thing, the angle feels out-of-place, almost like it was plopped in by a writer who wanted to say something about it, but had no idea how.
But while the whole reasoning behind the mystery is laughable, the film is nonetheless exceptionally well made. The understated score brilliantly builds ample amounts of suspense, the direction and cinematography are solid, with establishing shots that, deliberate or not, feel eerily like POV shots, and the majority of the performances are fantastic.
While Gyllenhaal’s character is oddly written and portrayed with rapid, violent blinks, Hugh Jackman knocks it out of the park. This is the rawest, most powerful performance he’s ever given, to the point where it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him nominated for an Oscar come awards season.
With that said, and despite the good performances, many of the characters are throwaway. Maria Bello’s character is mostly useless after having a nervous breakdown early on, sleeping away the rest of the movie and never doing anything substantial until the end, while the older kids are more or less the same. And even with a runtime of over two and a half hours, certain ideas aren’t fleshed out, though that’s not entirely surprising given the large amount of them on display.
What ultimately makes the film work, however, is that the characters, when not sidelined at least, feel like real people. These families are beautifully established very early on, so you’ll care about what happens to those kids not simply because they’re kids, but because you’ve invested yourself in them. “Prisoners” is not the most solid movie in the world, nor is it subtle, but what it lacks in those areas, it makes up for with enough punches to the gut and haunting moments to last a lifetime.