Like The Way, Way Back, this was a slightly above average picture that had potential to be better than that.
From start to finish, Prisoners is uncomfortable, and many viewers will be put off by its premise. Watching a film about grieving parents is hard, made all the harder by the decisions Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) makes. And yet that is one of Prisoners’ greatest strengths. It challenges the viewer with the sorts of questions few Hollywood films ask, and it issues that challenge without taking a side. It is clever writing by Aaron Guzikowski and equally clever directing by Denis Villaneuve.
Acting is also top notch here. Jackman is terrific as Keller, bringing heavy intensity as well as severe vulnerability to his aching father. Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance as Detective Loki is more subtle than Jackman’s but no less intense and certainly no less captivating. Melissa Leo as Holly Jones is also magnificent.
Terrence Howard and Viola Davis (Franklin and Nancy Birch) are terribly underused. Howard’s Franklin might have been the film’s moral compass and Davis’ Nancy might have been Keller’s greatest ally (also making her Franklin’s greatest challenger), but Prisoners isn’t all that interested in exploring such a dynamic.
Which is a shame. Because that dynamic feeds the film’s theme. Plus, the potential of verbal and moral conflict between Keller, Franklin and Nancy generates most of the story’s suspense as well as almost all of the buzz from critics and viewers reacting to this flick. If Franklin and Nancy had played a more prominent role, Prisoners could have taken us deeper.
Instead, Prisoners’ second half offers a whole lot of plot, including a massive red herring and a twist that could have been handled better. This shift is the picture’s greatest flaw. The beginning was mostly about character and theme. The end is primarily about what happens. The what happens isn’t necessarily bad, but transitioning into a focus on plot gives Prisoners’ second half a different tone than its first. What we think we’re watching through the first hour plus isn’t what we end up seeing the second hour plus. I found the difference disjointing and disappointing.
As the picture develops, the coincidences pile up, and some of them are under-explored and under-explained, most especially the religious subplot.
At times, the movie is repetitive. We hear the same conversations between the same characters, especially between Keller and Paul Dano’s Alex Jones, just a few too many times.
Prisoners could have been 30-40 minutes shorter, partially because of its repetitiveness and partially due to the time devoted to a red herring. Director Villanueve and writer Guzikowski give the “that really had nothing do with anything” sub-plot a whole lot of treatment, which might have been eerie, fascinating and interesting if they had spent more time showing us Keller, Gracie (Maria Bello), Franklin and Nancy responding to the “news” the red herring brings them. But, again, Prisoners’ second half is less interested in exploring its characters than in exploring the events with which the characters must cope.
Oddly, for a flick that is too long, Prisoners rushes through some key plot developments, not letting the viewer see it coming and also not letting the characters digest them. (I won’t say which ones so as not to spoil anything too badly.)
I wish Maria Bello’s Gracie had responded some way other than folding up in bed and sleeping. I’m not saying this is an inaccurate portrayal of how many parents might react to such horrific events; I’m saying it makes for an odd transition when Gracie moves from over-slept prisoner of emotion to doting mother, concerned but seemingly not terribly troubled about her husband.
As a small thought, I agree this film needs an implied ending, not a literal one, but I nonetheless wish the final moments had been carried a few seconds longer.
With all of these criticisms stated, let me be clear – Prisoners is not bad. Not in the least. It is a thrilling and suspenseful drama that reaches for Oscar (in the beginning it even feels like the film is going to grab such trophies), but it is flawed, and those flaws make the movie fall short of its ambitions.