“PRISONERS” IS A hugely entertaining, harrowingly suspenseful, old fashioned thriller. First off, let me note that there’s a lot about the story-telling and editing that are just sloppy and irritating.
For instance, highly strung detective Loki – Jake Glyllenhaal – has a nervous facial twitch throughout the film. This is never explained…probably lost on the cutting-room floor somewhere. Moreover, various characters turn up and seem to open plot directions; but these are summarily dropped. We’re introduced to a mysterious drunk priest who has a dead man in his cellar chained to a chair. Huh? Dead man? Priest? That entire plot line seems to have been there simply to introduce us to a weird labyrinth medallion the corpse is wearing. Whatever happened to the priest?
But, be that as it may, there’s much to relish in director Denis Villeneuve’s edge of the seat whodunit.
As the story begins, we are introduced to Keller Dover, a man so obsessed with protecting his family that he’s out teaching his son how to kill and survive in the wilderness, should the need occur. This is a man who has an entire basement filled with supplies just in case of Armageddon. And this is also Hugh Jackman, channeling his inner Mel Gibson, as a man barely holding an inner rage in check. This inner rage begins to rise to the surface when his daughter and the daughter of his friend Franklyn (Terrence Howard) are kidnapped on Thanksgiving Day.
This is of course every parent’s worst fear. And the agony and desperation of the parents as they search for their missing kids is nicely observed and dramatized. Quickly, the clues lead a brooding, compulsive detective Loki to an RV that was seen in the vicinity; swiftly thereafter the driver, a mentally challenged man, Alex (Paul Dano of “Looper” and soon in “12 Years a Slave”) is arrested.
But the RV shows no signs of the missing girls, and the silent Alex ain’t talking. It is when after the legal limit of 48 hours is passed and Alex is released that Keller’s (Jackman) need to protect his family releases his inner rage. He kidnaps Alex, and with the reluctant collusion of Franklin (the father of the other kidnapped girl) and his wife, Nancy (Viola Davis), begins a period of sustained and systematic torture.
(This isn’t a political movie, so I will resist, but cannot help but note the storyline’s interesting ‘real-world’ parallels: a proto-violent super-power who insists that torture is a valid means of self protection and bona fide route to ferreting out the truth.)
Detective Loki is himself a man of barely controlled rages (though the reasons for this are left sketchy…check that cutting room floor), which he tries to keep in check as he rushes from lead to lead racing against time to find and rescue the girls.
One of the initial scenes is framed from the perspective of a dashboard, from which is hanging, prominently, a crucifix. And there is certainly a religious sub-text that flows through the story-line. As they say, bad people will always do bad things, but when good people do bad things…for that you need religion.
And certainly, lurking somewhere in the gore and tension, Director Villeneuve’s story surfaces (though, like many of the plot lines, it doesn’t quite follow through) the story’s moral dilemma: at what point do good people go beyond the law to protect the people they love? What starts off as a happy dinner party with seemingly normal people soon reveals itself as a kind of morality tale about what happens when good people are pushed to extremes. In the case of Keller, there’s a quick degeneration into alcoholism and savagery. His wealthy, upper crust lawyer neighbours reluctantly engage with a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ kind of complicit, willful blindness; and Keller’s wife, Grace (a whimpering simpering Maria Bello, from “The Mummy; 3”) sinks into drug-induced grogginess.
I wish we could have explored this dimension further. No matter, Villeneuve’s intent is to keep the tension taut and fast paced and the story moves along at such a clip that if these deeper themes are glossed over, so too are its irritations easily by-passed.
The film was produced by the protean Mark Wahlberg, who has also produced “Broken City”, “Boardwalk Empire”, the underrated “Contraband”, the outstanding series, “In Treatment” and “Entourage” amongst other gems.