If you are parent, what would you do if your child were kidnapped? I’m not asking in a clichéd, introduce-a-movie-theme kind of way. This is an actual question. Really, what would you do? Please stop reading for a moment and reflect on your instincts and the options that you would have… Do you have any good answers? Has the emotion of even this hypothetical situation upset you to the point of not being able to think clearly? If so, that’s understandable. I don’t have children, but I think it’s safe to assume that parents would do anything to see their children again. Enter director Denis Villeneuve, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, and their cinematic take on parental devotion entitled Prisoners.
As I said, I don’t have children, so I can’t, by definition, empathize with the parents in this story. However, due to the immense strength of this film’s storytelling and acting, I don’t have to be a parent to feel the pain and fear that these characters experience. Clocking in at 150 minutes, Prisoners covers a lot of ground in terms of plot, theme, and character development. To be sure, two and a half hours never felt so quick.
Set in rural Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving, Prisoners begins with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family joining Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his family for a Thanksgiving meal. As the day progresses, the families notice their two young daughters, Joy and Anna, are missing. Following a clue that a strange RV had been parked on a nearby street at the time of the girls’ disappearance, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) apprehends Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Jones is the perfect stereotype of a sexual predator: white, male, late 20s/early 30s, single, animal abuser.
After a confrontation with the newly-freed Jones, Keller becomes convinced that Jones is indeed responsible for his daughter’s kidnapping. Fanatically determined to find his child, Keller — as the saying goes — takes the law into his own hands. What follows is a complex web of clever red herrings, overzealous detectives, guilt, confusion, torture, and revenge — great material for any psychological thriller.
The casting of Prisoners is an accomplishment in itself; six of its actors are Oscar/Golden Globe winners or nominees. To be honest, the all-star ensemble might have been overkill. The two most developed characters are Keller and Detective Loki. The other characters, though played extremely well, are a tad one-dimensional and serve more as plot devices. Keller is very likeable as a “man’s man.” He’s devoted to his family, hardworking, prepared, religious, and willing to do anything to find his daughter. Jackman walks a fine line between extreme emotion and “Hollywood ham,” but I think he pulls it off well in the end. Jackman effectively reveals Keller’s inner turmoil as a man who wants to find answers, but in doing so must turn his back on his faith.
Keller’s fanaticism is tempered by the (mostly) cool and calculated Detective Loki. Gyllenhaal does an excellent job of portraying a unique “movie detective” personality. Though he sometimes uses some “tough guy” clichés, Gyllenhaal gives us much more with his Detective Loki. Loki is perceptive, intelligent, lonely, and twitchy at times. He is put in the awkward position of having to sympathize with, and distrust, Keller. Ultimately, Loki’s intuition proves to be correct, and for this we like him all the more.
To be sure, Prisoners goes well beyond a simple, mind-teasing mystery. One of the recurring motifs in the film is Keller’s reciting of the Lord’s Prayer. Indeed, faith in God, and the lack thereof, fuel this narrative and cause us to ask questions about our own faith. When something bad happens, do we look to some higher power for strength, or do we curse the higher power that we used to worship when things were going well? Is our faith conditional? If so, how and why?
Another theme that runs throughout is the notion of “preparedness.” Keller’s repeated attempts to prepare for everything are undermined when he finds himself helplessly unprepared for his daughter’s kidnapping. This helplessness forces us to wonder to what extent we can prepare for the future. Are we focusing on the “right” dangers? When does preparation become paranoia? Is paranoia bad when it comes to our children’s safety?
I thoroughly enjoyed Prisoners. For a film to impress a hardened thriller-consumer such as myself is admirable. For a thriller to distinguish itself from the seemingly endless supply of cheap, Scooby-Doo-formulated mysteries that Hollywood manufactures is exceptional. Though some of the plot devices were a bit of a stretch, I found myself willing and able to suspend my disbelief. The exceptional acting, heart-wrenching plot, and thought-provoking thematic elements work in concert to make Prisoners something out of the ordinary.
All in all, I recommend Prisoners to anyone who wants to experience a mystery that goes well above and beyond its own plot.
Photos via: Google