By Dan Metcalf, Jr.
Clipper Film Correspondent
Prisoners (Warner Bros.)
Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve.
Child abduction movies have rules. One of those rules is the kids don't usually die. Knowing this should not tip anyone as to the outcome of Prisoners, a new “child abduction” movie released this week in theaters, but it should keep audiences interested in staying to the end of the film.
Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a construction company owner and survivalist who lives with his wife (Maria Bello), teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) in a quaint Pennsylvania village. Their neighbors are Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrance Howard and Viola Davis), who have a teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and a young daughter named Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
The Dovers spend Thanksgiving with the Birches, and sometime during the commotion of the holiday gathering, Anna and Joy disappear. The frantic search turns up no leads, except a creepy, old RV the little girls were seen playing on earlier in the day. As police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes over the investigation, the RV is located a short time later, and its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is arrested and questioned about the girls. Alex is apparently mentally handicapped, and when police can't find any evidence of the girls connected to him, he is freed, which allows Keller to confront him in the police station parking lot, where Alex whispers something about seeing the girls “playing when I left them,” angering Keller more. Alex's aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) defends her nephew's innocence, pointing out his lack of intelligence.
When police turn their attention to another lead (including a dead man's body found in a church basement), Keller grows impatient and abducts Alex, taking him to an abandoned apartment building he owns. Keller beats and tortures Alex for several days, and enlists the help of Franklin and Nancy to try and force the young man to confess.
When the truth comes out, Keller must try one last, desperate confrontation to locate and save the girls – if they are alive...
Prisoners is at times a clever film with a lot quality performances from a more than capable group of performers (Jackman, Howard, Davis, Gyllenhaal, Dano, Leo). That's an impressive list of actors, and Prisoners is a film that requires a lot of acting talent to keep it from becoming too melodramatic or maudlin, like so many Lifetime Channel movies.
Great actors aside, Prisoners suffers from a few cinematic flaws, including its length (2 & 1/2 hours), and more red herrings than a communist fish market. The story has all the twists and turns you expect from a crime novel, which often made me realize how implausible it is. I had the real “bad guy” pegged in the first 20 minutes, and a major piece of key evidence in the abduction investigation is exposed early as well. All that hand-tipping kind of ruined the ending for me.
Prisoners is not your “feel-good” child abduction movie, because it is very dark in tone and earns its R-rating from several prolonged torture scenes. If you have kids, Prisoners might provoke a few soul-searching thoughts as to how far you would go to save them, but that doesn't make it a good date night movie, either.