It’s a cliché in film lovers’ circles: the great, intense movie that you never want to see again. Prisoners isn’t a great movie, though it is a pretty good one. It has something to say on an important topic, it goes about its job with refreshingly adult sensibilities and it manages to deliver a credible thriller based on complex characters instead of surprise plot twists. The cast is terrific (Hugh Jackman has officially achieved Next Level status) and director Denis Villeneuve shows a great deal of assurance with some very difficult material.
And yet for all that, Prisoners ultimately feels like a film you admire rather than like… not because of the material (which is decidedly grim) but with the detached and sometimes drawn-out way that it delivers on it. In part, its clinical approach allows it to do its work at the cost of a brisker pace and perhaps a little too much meditation for its own good.
The story is provocative without being overtly political, exploring such topics as torture, spiritual atonement and the extremes you’ll go to for someone you love. Two little girls disappear one cold Thanksgiving Day. All signs point to a local creep (Paul Dano), who was loitering in the neighborhood with his serial killer RV. But there’s no evidence in the vehicle and with the creep seemingly possessing severe mental disabilities, the police have no choice but to let him go. The driven Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) continues to pursue every options, but that’s not good enough for one of the fathers (Jackman), who soon takes the law into his own hands.
To say more is to give away the twists and turns, which constitute one of the movie’s great strengths. Very tellingly, they stem from the characters and their decisions rather than the simplistic need to blow our socks off. Villeneuve is a master at leaving certain things be, suggesting just enough detail to give us the basics, then letting our minds fill in the blanks. Take Jackman’s Keller Dover, for example. He’s a devout Christian, a hard-working provider… and someone with a fairly healthy sense of paranoia. Alcoholism crops up in his past and it’s implied that he came to Jesus in order to crawl out of the bottle. He keeps supplies down in the basement for the end of the world, and there’s an intensity to his look that suggests deep wounds left festering for years. Yet Prisoners never goes for the easy “nut-job conspiracy theorist” cliché. There’s more to him than that, and when he does what he does, we see exactly, precisely where he’s coming from.
Most of the film presents a battle of wits between him and Loki, both deeply keen on solving the mystery, but both taking paths that bring them into direct conflict. That, too, goes against the typical Hollywood grain, allowing the personalities to shape the plot rather than the other way around. It makes for a fascinating (if extremely grim) exercise, marrying the classic machinations of a thriller with more thoughtful notions of how a real event this horrific might affect the people involved.
And yet for all of that, Prisoners still flags at points. Individual scenes drag out for longer than they should, and more than once, the film lingers when it needs to move along. The pretense becomes a little too much for it from time to time, and while Villeneuve remains deeply sympathetic to his protagonists, he sometimes puts a little too much distance between us and them lest he get too caught up in the theatrics. The plot springs a few too many holes for its own good as well: devoted to hard realism while glossing over a few head-scratching questions and a narrative neatness that defies how cases like this usually end in real life.
Most of the time, that would doom a project this dark and brooding, sinking it beneath the weight of its own pretense. The director flashes too much technical prowess to let that happen, however, and the cast helps raise the film higher through the richness of their performances. It makes Prisoners a comparative rarity in 2013: something solely for grown-ups who aren’t interested in turning off their brains. Its flaws compound the somber tone, making it a tough film to watch at times. But the sheer craftsmanship on display is too strong to ignore, leading us back again to the notion of a high quality production that probably won’t get a lot of second viewings. The first one, at least, isn’t something you’ll easily forget.