© 2013 Ray Wong

Prisoners is not your normal everyday Hollywood mystery-suspense. Using a kidnapping case as the backbone of the story, it examines complex themes such as family, morality, and to some extent, religion.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a religious man, but he's also a practical man, always ready for the worst disasters. He and his wife Grace (Maria Bello), teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) live in a Pennsylvania suburb and are good friends with neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis) and their two daughters (Eliza and Joy). After Thanksgiving dinner, Anna and Joy go outside to play but they never return.The family's search leads them to an RV that was parked in the neighborhood earlier.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case. He arrests Alex Jones (Paul Dana), the driver of the RV, as a potential suspect, but due to the lack of physical evidence and the fact that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old, Loki has no choice but let Alex go. Infuriated and convinced that Alex is involved in the kidnapping, Keller decides to take matters in his own hands. He abducts Alex and locks him in an abandoned apartment building. He coerces reluctant Franklin to help him interrogate Alex. Also a religious man, Franklin believes what Keller is doing is wrong, and eventually he drops out, forcing Keller to deal with Alex on his own.

Meanwhile, Loki's investigation leads him to a priest who is hiding a dead body in his basement, and a recluse who buys children clothing at a thrift store. It also leads him back to Keller, whose odd behavior puzzles Loki as Alex has somehow disappeared.

Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine) has sharpened his dramatic skills in the past few years, earning his first Oscar nomination in Les Miserables. Here, Jackman plays the conflicted man -- a man of faith who is also desperate to find his daughter -- with great intensity and power. His character is the most complex and difficult in the movie, and he does a good job. Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) plays a simpler character named Loki -- a dedicated, introspective detective. Yet Gyllenhaal plays the character with a depth and sensitivity that defy the stereotype. What could have been a cliched "detective" character turns into a very human character in Gyllenhaal's sensitive portrayal.

Other than the two leading men, the supporting cast is extraordinarily strong. Viola Davis (Beautiful Creatures) and Maria Bello (Grown Ups 2) play the grieving mothers with heartbreaking intensity. Terrence Howard (The Butler) is also good as the meek Franklin, whose sense of morality conflicts with his dire effort to find his daughter. Paul Dano (Ruby Sparks) is superb as Alex Jones, and Melissa Leo (Olympus Has Fallen) is also solid as his aunt Holly.

Aaron Guzikowski's (Contraband) screenplay is taut and suspenseful. It follows familiar suspense-mystery footprints, but at the same time deviates to examine something more disturbing. What is right and what is wrong? In the name of justice and personal anguish, is "torture" right? Guziknowski doesn't provide the answer, but through the character Keller, there are plenty of questions that he raises to provoke us. He also taps into one of the biggest, most unimaginable fears of any parent: losing a child in insidious situations.

As a mystery, there are plenty of obligatory red herrings and wild goose chases, some of which could become tedious and predictable for the avid mystery fans. For everybody else, however, the puzzles are well thought-out, if somewhat manipulative, and it's a fun thing to connect the dots and see if the audience gets it before the Keller or Loki does. As in the any mystery, the clues are there and they are doled out gradually to lure the audience in and keep them in the story. Some of the clues and connections do seem rather contrived, however.

But Denis Villeneuve's (Incendies) direction keeps everything tight together. His style is gritty and gloomy, perfectly supported by Pennsylvania's winter landscape. The pacing is right except for a few slow spots (at 153 minutes the movie does feel a little too long). Villeneuve plays it close to his vest, often cutting away and letting the audience take their guesses or make their own conclusions. The technique works beautifully. He also slows down enough to develop the characters and let the actors bring their characters and relationships to life. I appreciate that. The slower pace also allows the audience to collect the clues and piece it all together. The downside is, of course, the astute audience could be a step ahead of the story. The payoff, however, is excellent.

Prisoners is a moody, suspenseful and skillfully crafted drama that is both entertaining and thought provoking. Even though there are familiar mystery and suspense trappings and manipulations, I think the audience will be willing to become prisoners in the theater for this movie for 153 minutes.

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language
Running Time: 153 minutes


Script - 8
Performance - 8
Direction - 8
Cinematography - 7
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 8
Production - 8

Total - 7.9 out of 10.0 

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