When a seemingly fair and honest man is pushed to the point where an inner demon emerges, even if he believes that what he’s doing is in everyone’s best interest, disaster will follow.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a fairly likable guy, a small town carpenter who appears to be a fair and honest man. He’s the sensible, practical kind who loves his family and enjoys sharing time with friends at the dinner table while the children play. But there‘s another side to Keller. He’s a survivalist. His basement is crammed with neatly organized cans of food and drink, and stockpiled with an array of handguns, rifles and ammunition. “Pray for the best and prepare for the worst,” he says. And he can be stern. When asked about buying new things for the house Keller is adamant on what the family can afford and what it can’t, and you sense there’ll never be a point where you can argue with the man. When his mind is made, the decision is written in stone.
Then the worst thing that can happen to a family happens. His young daughter and her friend vanish. The last we see of the girls is as they leave the family living room, skipping playfully off together. And Keller can’t contain himself.
The only suspect is a young man called Alex (Paul Dano) but it doesn’t help that the boy has the IQ of a ten-year old. The police arrest him – he’s their only lead – but there’s no physical evidence that Alex had anything to do with a kidnapping. Plus, because of the simple, backward nature of the suspect, the boy can never answer a question directly. Both the arresting detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) and the frantic father become increasingly frustrated by Alex’s continual silence and his inability to respond to any line of questioning in a normal manner. “That boy has never been in trouble a day in his life,” insists his mother (Melissa Leo).
With no evidence, the police have to release Alex. But Keller is having none of it. Convinced of the boy’s guilt, and knowing that with every passing minute the likelihood of finding his daughter and her friend diminishes, Keller takes extreme measures; he kidnaps the boy and holes him up in a derelict building in an abandoned part of town, and he tortures him.
The dilemma, not only for Hugh Jackman’s character but also for ours, is that we’re never really sure that the boy had anything to do with the kidnappings. Is Alex really guilty or is Jackman’s character pursuing the wrong lead? Is torture the right way to go or will the boy eventually say anything in order to stop the pain? Doubt is continually thrown our way, and knowing that the police have little to go on only increases our frustration.
The performances from all, particularly Jackman and Gyllenhaal, are delivered with such intensity you feel that everyone involved considered this a personal project and had to allow time to pass in order to shake their characters off. The cinematography of Roger Deakins is exemplary. Icy, winter rain continues to fall as though the heavens themselves are crying down, uncontrollably, on the situation. Only Melissa Leo as the mother of the suspect rings false. Leo is a superb actor, but with a graying wig and heavily lined makeup, every time you see her you’re always reminded that you’re looking at a young woman pretending to play old. For fleeting moments throughout, the reality is punctured.
Independent film director Denis Villeneuve has made his first big studio film but other than having a bigger budget and some outstanding ‘A’ list actors with which to work, his independent, non-compromising nature is still intact. There’s a continual, ever present and unpleasant sense of dread and doom throughout the film. You sense it even before anything happens. With a smaller film, that heavy feeling of something awful has probably happened can often be difficult to take, but with a bigger budget and a much larger canvas – the film is almost two and half hours long – that feeling is overpowering. If it wasn’t for the fact that the film is so well crafted where you’re occasionally afforded the pleasure of admiring professionalism on the screen, Prisoners can boarder on something too hard to take. Any film that explores the human condition is worth your time, but to call it entertainment is a stretch.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 146 minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)