‘Prisoners’ Is Brilliant, Yet Difficult To Watch


The new movie Prisoners is well-named, as all of its brilliant cast become prisoners of a horrible situation spinning out of control. This film, easily the finest I have seen all year, is for grown-ups. It is dark, brilliant, yet excruciating. Director Denis Villaneuve has created a superb film that will be compared to Silence of the Lambs and Death Wish. It is a movie that will tear you apart. Also, it is definitely not for children (although there is no sexuality or even much overt violence). Many adults, particularly those with children, will find it tough.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a tough Christian survivalist, and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), are invited over for Thanksgiving by friends and neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). As their two daughters play, they go outside, and what follows is the worst possible nightmare for any parent: The children disappear. The police are called in, and they immediately assign their best detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), to the case. A weird kid, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has an RV in the neighborhood, one that the girls played around, is arrested, but the police have no evidence, and he is released. Keller goes berserk, kidnapping and torturing the young man. And then other suspects move through. There are many twists and turns; a lot of small things that are mentioned early in the movie turn out to be important later. And there is no clear-cut answer at the end.

Everyone in the cast becomes a prisoner. The two young girls, of course. But the mothers become prisoners of their own grief, unable to move. The first suspect becomes a prisoner. Jackman’s Keller becomes a prisoner of his own emotions, unable to get under control. And Loki becomes a prisoner of the system.

This reflects the even-handedness of the script, brilliantly written by Aaron Guzikowsky. There is a duality in our society. The father knows that there is a process to be followed, a legal pathway, but does not care. To him, getting his daughter back is the main, indeed the only, consideration. While accepting that the law believes it has the only right approach, he is intent solely on finding and saving her. The police officer cares more about the law than the chances of survival of the two girls, essentially writing them off. He often seems more intent on keeping his perfect record of crime-solving in place than trying to rescue the two. To him, the process is vital. “The operation was a success; the patient died,” would be a perfect motto. Yet the situation is so complex that even that simple dichotomy breaks down. The issue is not as simple as whether the torture of a viable suspect leads to a rescue. But it gives us plenty to think about.

The cast is brilliant. It is filled with Oscar winners and nominees, and all of them perform brilliantly. Dano is particularly effective as the creepy young suspect. Gyllenhaal gives one of his most nuanced performances. His Loki is not a simple cop; he has his secrets and flaws. But Jackman dominates the film. He has given many good performances; this one is easily his best. Charles Bronson’s stoicism worked well in Death Wish, but it limited the movie. Anthony Hopkins was way over the top as Hannibal Lector. But Jackman’s Keller is a far more complex performance. At the start, he seems fully in control, his survivalism essentially just a symbol of his own need for independence. But as he pushes past legal and moral boundaries, a whole new side of him arises, one that he perhaps never imagined.

This is a tough film. As the father of daughters, it was difficult to sit and just watch through the long film (two and a half hours) because of the subject matter. It is not hard to visualize myself in place of the parents. The slow-moving processes of law, the obviously meaningless assurances from law enforcement that they are doing everything, would seem terrible. Yet, we do want at least the veneer of civilization. Violating others’ rights is clearly illegal; but if someone held your child, is it truly immoral? And what if the person whose rights you violated was not the guilty party?

These issues are pointed up in this gritty, brilliant film. Right now, it probably has established itself as the leader for possible Oscars, etc., for the year. See it if you can make it through the subject matter.