Who are the title characters in “Prisoners”?
Are they the two little girls abducted early in the film and kept out of sight? Does the word also refer to the mentally impaired boy who seems to have a clue to their whereabouts, and whom an enraged father kidnaps to get information?
Or are the prisoners the distraught fathers themselves, caught in a situation they can’t unmake and letting go of their humanity in the belief that evil deeds will be justified by a happy end?
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who’s making his first feature in English, explored an equally horrific (if thematically different) story in the Oscar-nominated “Incendies” three years ago. (He’s from Quebec and works in French.)
Here, though, he and writer Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) overlay their compelling character study with a whodunit. That story hasn’t quite as strong a payoff: The motive for the girls’ disappearance almost gets thrown away in explanation, and the elaborate subplot involving a quirky suspect – bizarrely intriguing as it is – makes the movie too long by 20 minutes.
Hugh Jackman works up a heady rage as Keller Dover, a carpenter whose daughter disappears one Thanksgiving Day. He doesn’t believe that Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, blinking his eyes twitchily to show a guy under stress) takes the case seriously enough. (Sadly, Loki has no partner named Detective Thor.)
Mentally impaired Alex Jones (Paul Dano) seems to know something about the girls and was found at the wheel of a van cruising the neighborhood, but the cops let Jones go for lack of evidence. So Dover kidnaps Jones, chains him to a sink in an abandoned building and beats him in hopes of a confession.
He invites Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), whose daughter was also snatched, to help. Franklin tips off his wife (Viola Davis), and the Birches have a dilemma: They dare not turn Dover in to the cops if he’s right, but they can’t stand to watch him torture Jones if he’s wrong. (The script gives us some evidence he is right.)
The movie becomes crazier, briefly more interesting and ultimately more diluted when Loki gets sidetracked by an oddball suspect. He’s played by David Dastmalchian, who tops a list of fine supporting players that includes Melissa Leo as Alex’s numb foster mother and Len Cariou as a priest with many secrets. The film was shot in Georgia and uses many Charlotte actors; Rob Trevelier has a good part as a DNA expert, and I caught Brian Daye as a desk cop and Kevin Johnson as a forensics technician.
By the end, the filmmakers have slightly lost sight of the journey on which they began. They don’t take a firm stand on the harsh treatment dealt to Jones by Dover, except to have an ambiguous ending that simply feels like a cop-out.
Yet the trip they’ve taken, fueled by Jackman’s rage and Gyllenhaal’s doggedness and the complicitous uneasiness of Davis and Howard, has plenty of dramatic power.
They’ve also made a good-looking film, drenched in rain and snow that let Georgia pass for Pennsylvania. Roger Deakins, probably the best living cinematographer never to win an Oscar (he’s 0-for-10), was behind the camera. So the picture never lets us down visually, even when the story occasionally strays.
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