Prisoners can be quite good when it chooses to be a regular thriller. Unfortunately it decides to try for more, and comes up short in doing so.
Denis Villeneuve, the French-Canadian director of Polytechnique and Incendies, has seemingly hit the jackpot with his English language debut. Teaming up with a cast of terrific actors along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, Prisoners sadly spends most of its time letting the incredibly talented people behind it build a hollow shell of a film. The mentions of spirituality, faith, and morally grey situations are laid out but never explored beyond the surface. Thankfully, with people like Villeneuve and Deakins at the helm, the technical mastery makes up for plenty lost in the lackluster screenwriting.
The film starts on Thanksgiving with two neighbouring families, the Dovers and the Birches, visiting each other for dinner. It’s only until well after the dinner that both families realize their youngest daughters, Anna and Joy, are nowhere to be found. Their concern eventually turns to panic as they realize someone took their children. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads the investigation into finding the missing girls, while the two sets of parents grieve in their own ways. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is furious at the police for being ineffective, while his wife Grace (Maria Bello) constantly takes pills to stop herself from going into hysterics. Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) simply co-operate and hope for the best.
The only suspect in the case at this point, the driver of an old RV the kids played around with before disappearing (played terrifically by Paul Dano), is mentally impaired to the point where it would be impossible for him to have successfully kidnapped two children. The police let him go, but Keller is convinced of the man’s guilt and kidnaps him. At this point the narrative cuts back and forth between Keller’s torturing of Dano for information and Loki’s attempts to solve the case through more traditional means.
The moral issues that come with Dover’s actions are touched upon only when Franklin and Nancy get roped into helping him. Keller never shows any sense of guilt for what he’s doing, but Howard and Davis do excellent work showing how their characters feel like there are no other options but helping Dover out. Most of the cast ends up doing the leg work for their characters, as writer Aaron Guzikowski mostly boils them down to one or two traits (Keller’s a doomsday prepper, Loki is the classic determined detective, Franklin plays the trumpet). Davis and Bello get the worst material to work with, as Nancy amounts to nothing more than a blank slate and Bello is reduced to frequently wailing. With characters defined so broadly it’s hard for the film’s themes to resonate.
Luckily there is a much better film within Prisoners, and it comes out when the focus turns back to a standard thriller instead of shallow introspection. Villeneuve creates plenty of tension, especially in the film’s dark final act, and Deakins is on top form as always. There are plenty of things going on stylistically, like the way Villeneuve plays with the violation of space throughout the film, however, it’s one of the only interesting things going on for the first two-thirds. Prisoners can be quite good when it chooses to be a regular thriller. Unfortunately it decides to try for more, and comes up short in doing so.