Kellen Dover (Hugh Jackman)’s daughter and her friend go missing. As the local police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) can’t seem to bring the girls back, the desperate father takes measures into his own hands.
Prisoners has been out for two years now and somehow I never got to see it. I knew that people were praising it but I also knew that it wasn’t going to be a happy viewing experience, so I saved it for a rainy day. Then, after seeing Jake Gyllenhaal’s intense performance in Nightcrawler (2014), my curiosity for Prisoners rose. Finally, with a group of friends we tackled this beast while outside it was raining, fittingly.
The film changes shape a few times. It starts out as a rather standard missing-children story (that alone tells you that this won’t be a comedy; it dives straight into the drama). Then, when the investigation turns a bit messy, the characters of the police detective and the desperate father start butting heads and for a while the film seems to morph into a clash of willpower between these characters. Meanwhile, more evidence and strange people turn up and the film becomes a puzzle and a whodunnit for the viewer to solve. Clues are handed out from the beginning and pieces start to fall together.
From this description it sounds like the movie is rather crammed, but as you watch it, the story feels actually rather straightforward because the movement from theme to theme happens smoothly and naturally. And even though the movie is quite long (2.5 hours) it moves forward with a steady pace.
Besides the good screenwriting, the movie is carried by some good performances. Gyllenhaal’s detective wasn’t even the best acted role of the movie. He is sufficient as a quiet, understated character but ultimately not that remarkable. It is Hugh Jackman as the father who is the most conflicted character in the story, and he brings an intensity to the role that makes him very convincing as an overbearing man who is stressed to his limits.
In the end, as the puzzle becomes more obvious, the final theme of the movie becomes the morality of the desperate father. He went too far, he dragged other bereaved people down with him, and in his readiness to dispense justice he got into trouble. Will he deserve to get saved? This is partly answered by the ending of the film, but partly also for the viewer to answer. The detective moves to the position of observer, alongside the audience, and in the second-to-last scene the father’s wife tells him (and us, the viewers) that he is a good man. The detective wisely doesn’t give a clear answer to that.
My impression is that although this is a solidly directed and well-acted movie with some craftsmanship in its screenwriting, it isn’t a film fit for repeated viewing. The scenes and the dialogue were all in service to the unfolding of the plot and not so much shot as separate units of interest. Consequentially, when you’ve seen the movie once, much of the excitement is gone for a repeat viewing.