Desperation can make any man do the impossible, but more to the point, it reveals a man’s character to the deepest reaches of his soul. What one person is capable of doing in the most unthinkable of situations crates a portrait of who they are as a human, and how they interact with those around them. This idea is the theme behind Prisoners, a dour revenge thriller that is as much intense character study as it is suspenseful drama.
When two young girls go missing on Thanksgiving, the hunt to find them is triggered. The lead detective on the case is a broken mess of a man named Loki, played to mesmerizing effect by Jake Gyllenhaal (proving once again why he is the better actor in the family; sorry Maggie). Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki as a man on a mission he doesn’t even know he’s on. It’s revealed rather early that he has solved all of his cases, but it’s clear that, through several subtle ticks and broody nuances Gyllenhaal uses to great effect, his drive and dedication is only a substitute for closure that will always escape him. Finding these girls is the equivalent to finding his soul, even if he hasn’t realized that his tortured journey is never ending because he doesn’t truly know what he’s looking for.
On the other side of the search are the families of the little girls. Hugh Jackman and Mario Bello play Keller and Grace Dover alongside Terrance Howard and Viola Davis’ Franklin and Nancy Birch, friends and neighbors who couldn’t be more different in how they handle such extreme circumstances. Keller is a survivalist who believes that you must always prepare for the worst, even if the worst is something you can never prepare for. The kidnapping triggers an animal instinct within him that drives him to do anything and everything he has to (and even things he’d otherwise be unwilling to do, even going against his deepest religious beliefs) to get his daughter back. Franklin on the other hand is a more soft spoken man who can’t, for the life of him or his daughter, go against the law or his own personal beliefs.
Within the first half hour, Gyllenhaal has a suspect in custody, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a slightly mentally challenged young man in an RV that the girls were caught playing on before their kidnapping. Each father’s mettle is put to the test when Alex is released due to lack of evidence. Where Keller believes Alex is guilty and can’t let go of this idea, Franklin relies on the law to do what they do. It’s when Keller goes to the extreme measure of kidnapping and torturing Alex (thus essentially turning him into the man he so despises) that Franklin can’t cope. He follows his friend, and allows him to do what he thinks is necessary, but he can’t handle getting his hands dirty, fearing that if he does, he will become just like the man who kidnapped his daughter.
This conundrum presents itself quite subtly as both of these men fight their own inner demons to find the one they feel has their kids at the same time Detective Loki, battling a police department that doesn’t seem to care about the kids at all, looks through every crack and every clue with a determination that every cop should have. Each man is searching for something (other than the girls), and though it’s not clear, or even revealed what these things are, Jackman and Gyllenhaal do a terrific job, both individually and as a pair, to represent their deepest desires through their body language and the use of their dialogue, getting the most out of every word possible.
Though some of the twists throughout the latter half of the film are interesting, I don’t think they go far enough to warrant the performances, and the big reveal is handled quite clumsily that it sets up a bit of a disappointing ending that seems to wrap itself up a little too tightly, especially when you consider how deeply and effectively they have set up these men to fail, both in their search for the loves they lost and the loves they think they lost, and the men they want to be versus the men they turn out to be.
The prisoners of the film aren’t just the little girls, but the men (and to a lesser extent, the women, who but for a few select scenes are all but forgotten) who have reached the measure of desperation that will eventually, and completely, define them.
My Grade: A-
Next week, new movies include Rush, Baggage Claim and Don Jon. If you would like to see a review of one of these, or any other film out next week, please respond in the comments below.