“Prisoners,” written by Aaron Guzikowski, directed by Denis Villeneuve, 153 minutes, rated R.
“Prisoners,” Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to 2010′s standout Oscar-nominated film “Incendies,” is a lot like its predecessor in that it builds and meticulously unravels a mystery, slowly dropping the pieces of a tragedy into place to deliver something that is both small and personal, yet grand and powerful.
Instead of the chaotic, scorching clime of Villeneuve’s horrifying Middle Eastern drama, “Prisoners” finds Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) in a cold, quiet suburban neck of Pennsylvania on the back end of autumn. Keller’s a steadfast survivalist whose demeanor is as imposing as his stature, and he uses that influence to assert his convictions onto family and friends. His life takes a turn down a dangerous path while spending Thanksgiving with neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), when his daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the Birch’s daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
Heading the investigation into the kidnapping is the solitary Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), whose only lead is a run-down, outdated camper parked down the street at the time of the abduction. The camper is driven by Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who, upon interrogation, is found to have the IQ of a 10-year-old, and completely incapable of conducting such a crime. The RV, meanwhile, contains not a shred of evidence, and after 48 hours Loki is forced to let Jones walk.
While the detective pursues other leads, Keller remains convinced that Jones has information about Anna’s whereabouts. He’s so certain and stricken with desperation that he sees no other option than to accost Alex, chain him up and torture him until he cracks.
Jackman is as explosive in “Prisoners” as he’s been in his entire career, taking his performance over the top to an intense and dispiriting place that feels right at home under Villeneuve’s direction. Jackman’s well supported in his efforts, surrounded by an ensemble of A-listers who are more than capable of bearing the weight of this material.
After all, “Prisoners” is a somber piece of cinema, and it requires precision in its delivery, something Villeneuve has demonstrated in the past. Gifted with the ability to reveal just the right information at just the right time, Villeneuve strings the audience along, unlocking one door as he almost closes another, leaving it slightly ajar just to keep certain points in the back of your mind. In that regard, “Prisoners” plays out a lot like “Incendies.”
Then there’s the final act, which is sadly a little too safe, contrived and convenient, mollifying the film’s emotional impact. Where “Incendies” violates your boundaries, saving its most gut-wrenching – and believable – punch for last, “Prisoners” builds tension, doubt and moral quandaries only to exit with a finale best described as complacent. It’s a disappointment for an otherwise powerhouse film. Villeneuve can do better, and the story deserves better. So does the audience.
Feel free to follow me on Twitter at @JoelCrabtree.