A strangely disturbing, plot twisting, chilling film with a religious/moral subtext, PRISONERS from director Denis Villeneuve, deals with the kidnapping of two young friends whose families are celebrating Thanksgiving together. How the authorities and their parents respond to this horrific event is at the core of this film exploring the biblical phrase “an eye for an eye”, the nature of sin, and its roots in life’s tragic adversities. What lengths can one go in the pursuit of justice without the malignancy of hate corrupting our very being?
Passages from the bible are invoked in the first scene where we come upon a vulnerable deer silently moving through the wet, beautifully lit trees - and then the camera focuses on the barrel of a rifle and BANG – this innocent creature falls to its knees. The tone and mood of PRISONERS is thus established and reiterated by a voiceover verse from the bible. Father and son are the hunters and Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover the tightly wound “survivalist” parent, gives an intense if not frenetic performance of a man who will stop at nothing to keep his family safe even if it means seeking vigilante justice. His wife Grace (Maria Bello,) seems to need sheltering, as she conveys a somnambulistic helplessness in the face of this tragedy.
In contrast the other couple, whose child is also missing, despair and grieve deeply, but keep their moral center intact - or at least attempt to. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch is an actor whose portrayal of an anguished father is more emotive in his understated, quiet, velvety manner than his histrionic bullying male counterpart. Viola Davis as his wife, Nancy Birch, is the voice of quiet reason, but she too is compromised by the need to seek retribution for the disappearance of her adored daughter. The unknowable can be a force for ethical transgression when one is confronted by drastic circumstances.
Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, is the embodiment of the legal system - a twitching (is this part of his character or the actor’s own affliction?) officer of the law with a 100% clearance rate on his arrest record; so we the spectators put our faith in him to unravel the many clues and suspects that arise, creating a deep climate of suspense. Gyllenhaal’s characterization, though adequate, was not “inspired” which could be due to the many plot zigzags as well as contortions of basic legal procedures that were distracting, and took me out of the small-town Pennsylvania environment back into my own dubious head.
Paul Dano plays the prime culprit, Alex Jones – a young man with disabilities who is both sympathetic and repellent and living with his “aunt” the wonderful actress Melissa Leo. He is mentally “a child” and one that becomes the symbol of an infantile captive who is the victim of perverted rage and vengeance. Yet we are left hanging as new stratagems keep turning up leaving the audience exhausted.
PRISONERS not only refers to those who are physically held hostage, jailed, or restricted against their will, but those who are moving about freely yet are psychologically subjugated by fanatical demons that erupt when the stress of an event collides with their inherent emotional being. Despite the beauty of the cinematography that delicately defined the melancholy spirit of this brokenhearted world, the movie could not overcome the tendency to engorge itself in melodramatic horror, and that is its fatal flaw.