Two missing children, a tainted holiday, a father unhappy about police procedure and a detective determined to solve the case combine to make “Prisoners” just about as tight as a bedsheet at bootcamp.
Thanksgiving for the Birch and Dover families is just about as picture-perfect as it gets — until each family’s 6-year-old daughter is missing after going outside to play together. A search of the neighborhood is fruitless, but the families give police a description of an RV that had been parked nearby.
The RV is quickly tracked down, and Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has never left a case unsolved, immediately gets to work interrogating the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has the IQ of a 10-year-old. Without forensic evidence tying him to the girls’ abduction, he is released — much to the dismay of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who is already impatient with the police on the case.
Dover takes matters into his own hands. He kidnaps Jones and ties him up in the bathroom of an abandoned apartment building, and then enlists Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) for some interrogation of their own.
Meanwhile, Loki is pursuing leads of his own — although, most of them come up dry, or lead to completely other crimes, such as the decomposed body he finds in the basement of one nearby sex offender. Besides doggedly trying to preserve his record, Loki is trying to find Jones, identify the body he found and figure out what Dover is up to.
Jackman, roughed up with a bushy goatee and flannel, is great as the hard-working handyman devoted to his family and ready for anything. His emotions are at times explosive, but they also build and shift convincingly; you see him go through nuanced stages of grief without him even realizing it. Gyllenhaal is also solid as the bull-headed detective not afraid to bend the rules, and the contrast between Loki and Dover — arguably a foil of the contrast between how police and families often view the same crimes — is fantastic.
Howard doesn’t get nearly as much screen time as Jackman, but he doesn’t slow anyone down as a distressed father who finds the limits of his morality. Viola Davis gets a similar revelation as his wife, while Maria Bello, as Grace Dover, merely tries to hold herself together amid the strain. Melissa Leo also makes a skilled contribution as Jones’ aunt who is almost as strange as he is, and Dano’s glassy-eyed gaze is haunting all on its own.
Each of the characters are sympathetic in their own right, but because of the nature of the film, and how they all cope with the strain, it can be hard to decide who to root for, as well as who is innocent and who is guilty, and guilty of what. The questions of morality are not subtle, but aren’t distracting from the story.
This movie is tight. The dialogue feels natural, but there’s not a line wasted. Those that do seem to be tossed off actually serve to build characterizations and establish relationships, and they work. The story is solid, but has enough twists and turns that I didn’t quite work out whodunit and why until right before the reveal, yet it always feels plausible.
This movie is also long. It doesn’t necessarily feel long because the story is so engaging, well crafted and evenly paced, but I strongly recommend visiting the restroom beforehand and holding off on the large soda.
As far as the rating goes, there are sequences of torture, and the content itself is certainly not for children, but I’d bet this could have skated by with a PG-13 were it not for the language; it earns its R rating within 10 minutes of the girls’ disappearance. If you can get past that, though, “Prisoners” is an engaging, emotional mystery that is well worth your time — even two and a half hours of it.
Time: 153 minutes