‘Prisoners’: The tension stays with you
You will be drained. Emotionally spent, intellectually fatigued, give-me-a-moment-to-recover-before-I-get-out-my-seat drained.
That’s not the kind of filmgoing experience everyone desires, but if you’re up for the ride, “Prisoners” is a white-knuckle, near masterpiece of a thriller. It falls short of greatness mostly because of too much editing room generosity, with a running time of 153 minutes when about 130 minutes might have been more effective.
In an electric performance, Hugh Jackman delivers grounded, intense work as Keller Dover, a devoted family man who tells his teenage son the best advice he ever got from his father was to “be ready.” Keller isn’t some doomsday survivalist spouting theories about the end of days, but his basement is stocked with packaged goods, jugs of water and gas masks.
You know. Just in case.
It’s almost always cloudy, raining or snowing in the working-class Pennsylvania suburb (Georgia stands in, convincingly so) where Keller lives with his devoted wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their children: 14-year-old Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and 6-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich).
Their best friends, the Birches, live just around the block. Franklin (Terrence Howard) is an easygoing nerd who pulls out the trumpet after Thanksgiving dinner; Nancy (Viola Davis) is his loving wife; and they have two daughters: Eliza, who’s about the same age as Ralph, and Joy, who’s Anna’s age and is her best friend.
The table is set beautifully in these early passages. Even as the Dovers and the Birches enjoy a warm holiday gathering together, we feel the danger closing in. Something as simple as the choice of music emanating from a beat-up old recreational vehicle parked in front of an abandoned house, or the way a tree is framed in a shot of the Birch home, feels ominous.
It’s an hour or two after Thanksgiving dinner when Anna asks if she and Joy can skip over to the Dover house on a quick mission. A simple act of miscommunication sets off a chain of events that results in frantic searches of the two houses, parents running up and down the streets calling out their daughters’ names — and then calls to the police and swarms of volunteers walking through the woods with flashlights.
Someone has taken the girls.
Your heart drops as you watch the mothers fall into near-catatonic states of despair. Nancy Birch sits mute in the kitchen, the dinner dishes untouched. Grace Dover curls into a fetal position, prescription medication on the bedside table.
Franklin Birch is desperate to find his daughter, but Keller Dover is a man possessed. The man who always told his family he’d protect them, the man with the motto of “Be ready,” allowed his daughter to be stolen, and he’s not about to stand by meekly and wait for the police to do their job.
Paul Dano, whose very presence in a film practically shouts, “Disturbing creep!” is Alex, an adult with the mind of a 10-year-old who is the prime suspect in the case, but there’s no concrete evidence to charge him. (Melissa Leo, who has become a go-to character actress for a certain kind of role, is a standout playing Alex’s aunt.) Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, a loner with a strange and brooding manner, pleads with his captain to keep Alex in custody just one more day past the normal 48-hour waiting period, but Alex is released — and then Alex disappears.
The masterful script by Aaron Guzikowski takes us through a maze of plot complications and possible suspects including a hooded weirdo who shows up at a candlelight vigil and a drunken former priest. Meanwhile, Keller is convinced Alex knows where the girls are, and he’ll gladly trade Alex’s suffering for that information.
Even though “Prisoners” revisits one ongoing confrontation one time too many and spends a little bit too much time on a particular red herring, there’s not a single scene that doesn’t contain great acting.
Hugh Jackman is such an effortlessly graceful on-screen presence, such an old-school movie star, he might not get enough credit for being a fine actor. If Jackman’s ever given a more impressive performance, it doesn’t immediately spring to mind.
“Prisoners” is filtered through legendary director of photography Roger Deakins, who favors blacks and blues and dark browns, often shooting through rainstorms and giving us the same distorted perspective of Keller, whose grief and desperation are taking him to a point where he might be beyond redemption even if he saves the girls.
“Prisoners” is built on biblical themes of faith, fallen believers, revenge and the nature of good vs. evil. Crucifixes dangle from rearview mirrors. Prayers are said before acts of violence. That disgraced priest is a key character in the puzzle. Two of the purest characters in the story are named Joy and Grace.
And many a house in this story is filled with warmth and light on one level — and much darkness and doubt literally beneath the surface. There are three dwellings in this film with basements and/or cellars you’d never want to visit.
Even with the stretched-out running time, “Prisoners” is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences of the year. You’ll never forget it.