Review: ‘Prisoners’ – Simple Plot, Tense Drama, Big Twists

Prisoners Poster

Prisoners | Denis Villenueve | September 20, 2013

Prisoners, Denis Villenueve’s US directorial debut, is a hard film to watch, but it’s not because of the straightforward plot; it’s because of the lengths that the characters – one character in particular – go to.

The plot doesn’t seem all that original. Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), the young daughters of Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped as they’re walking back to the Keller household after Thanksgiving dinner at the Birch household, leading to a county-wide police hunt for the girls. Considering how often kidnappings are on our screens, whether they’re television news stories or serialized dramas, we as an audience are desensitized to such acts, so Prisoners initially seems to be grasping at straws, but it has a few tricks up its metaphorical sleeve.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to calm Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) in 'Prisoners'.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to calm Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) in Prisoners.

As the investigation progresses, we’re introduced to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a tatted solitary cop wavering between following the law or relying on his emotions. Both Loki and Keller serve as lenses for the audience, Loki as the lawman looking to do right and rescue both girls and Keller as the emotionally distraught religious man whose only goal is to get his daughter and his friend’s daughter back unharmed, no matter how damning the consequences of his actions are. You can probably see where this is going.

The main suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), has an elementary school-level intelligence and is released after being held for two days due to a lack of evidence, but Keller is convinced that Alex is behind the kidnapping. He kidnaps Alex at gunpoint and shackles him in a bathroom of a dilapidated apartment building that the Dovers own, hoping to extract the location of Anna and Joy. And this means resorting to forms of cruel and unusual punishment that I won’t go into here. Needless to say, there’s more than meets the eye, but, again, I’ll leave that unspoiled.

As I said earlier, the subject matter of Prisoners makes it hard to watch, but the solid cast, tightly focused shots, and makeup keep the audience riveted. Jackman is compelling as a concerned and angry suburban father, Gyllenhaal is a solid yet conflicted cop, and Dano plays innocent startlingly well. The wives (Maria Bello and Viola Davis) are more emotionally compromised than their husbands, but they aid in adding realism. Melissa Leo (Holly Jones, Alex’s mom) is also a definite surprise. Roger Deakins’s tightly focused macro shots are gripping, and I have the highest praise for the makeup team for their work on Dano, but you’ll have to see it for yourself.

Denis Villenueve’s Prisoners is a solid yet straightforward drama with a few well-orchestrated twists (and some Oscar buzz for sure), despite the tough subject material, and provides a glimpse of what we can expect from Villenueve and Gyllenhaal’s next team-up in the upcoming Enemy, an adaptation of José Saramago’s Kafka-esque The Double.

Rating: 8.8/10