Sadly, it’s virtually impossible these days to pick up a newspaper or turn on the radio or the television set without reading, hearing, or seeing myriad stories about child abductions. Throughout the years every parent’s worst nightmare has been the subject of numerous films and TV dramas, but I can’t recall any of these that treated to topic with more depth, suspense, and realism than “Prisoners” starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. This is as good as a film in this genre gets, and if you go to see it, prepare to have your heart ripped out.
The film is set in an unnamed Pennsylvania town, where Keller Dover (Jackman) lives with his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their two children, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and on Thanksgiving Day, Keller and his family walk a short way down their street to have dinner with their neighbors, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch, and their two daughters, Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
After the two families enjoy a bountiful repast, the adults begin talking about what adults discuss after dinner, and the two teenagers, Ralph and Eliza, chill in front of the TV set. But Anna, 6, and Joy, 7, want no part of a post-feast rest, and so they convince their parents to let them run back to Anna’s house for some toys. Then they simply disappear.
When everyone finally discovers that the girls are missing, immediate panic sets in. Someone remembers having seen an RV parked in neighborhood before the girls disappeared, and when Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) arrives on the scene, he begins searching for it and discovers it parked by a gas station near the woods. When Loki approaches the vehicle however, the driver attempts to flee and buries his front end in a tree.
The driver turns out to be a really creepy fellow named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who lives with his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). Loki takes Alex in for questioning, but this guy is far beyond strange, and when the police find out his IQ is that of a 10-year-old and realize they have no real evidence, they release him. However, this development infuriates Keller, who is certain Alex has some knowledge of the abduction.
When Alex attempts to leave the police parking lot, Keller accosts him, and Alex mumbles, “They only cried when I left them.”
Now Keller is certain Alex knows more than he is telling, and the grief and fear over his daughter’s disappearance have driven him to the brink of madness. He finally convinces Franklin to help him kidnap Alex, and they take him to an abandoned building where Keller proceeds to beat him senseless, but Alex refuses to talk.
While all of this is going on, Loki discovers some shocking things during his investigation before learning that Alex has gone missing. This is where the plot really becomes complex, and I will tell you no more because you need to be as stunned as I was when the whole thing plays out.
“Prisoners” is rife with tension, suspense, mystery, and drama, and I was on the edge of my seat from the time the little girls disappeared until the final credits began to roll. Of course what makes this film so riveting is its basic premise of missing children, and the movie succeeds so well in achieving a shocking sense of reality that I had a lump in my throat the whole time. In the film’s production notes, director Denis Villeneuve (“Maelstrom”) explained what motivated him to make the picture.
“‘Prisoners’ deals with one of the most difficult subjects in life — missing children. The mere thought of it makes us uncomfortable; we are instantly overcome with fear. Having to think, ‘What would I do if this happened to me?’ is truly unthinkable. You ask yourself how far you would go to find your child before time runs out and it’s too late. Or what you would do to the person you knew in your heart was responsible, if given the chance. And what if you didn’t take that chance, and it would’ve made a difference? Fear drives these thoughts and influences the answers. Even from the safety of a seat in a movie theater, the complex moral conflicts that can arise from our reaction to that singular emotion are fascinating. For me, as a filmmaker, to examine it and to look at our humanity through these richly drawn characters was so compelling that I was willing to face my own fears.”
Because the filmmakers are so successful in establishing and maintaining an oppressively foreboding atmosphere throughout the movie, the tension is virtually unbearable in places. This coupled with some brilliant acting, especially on Jackman’s part, elevates this movie far above the status of an ordinary thriller.
In a performance worthy of an Oscar nomination, Jackman’s portrayal of the bereaved father of an abducted child is at once heart wrenching, heartbreaking, riveting, moving, and above all brilliant. His ability to convey his character’s frustration, anger, anguish, pain, fear and complete emotional devastation defies adequate description. In the production notes, Jackman offered some fascinating insight into the film and his character.
“It is a classic ticking clock type of suspense thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, and really beautifully written, with great twists and turns. But it’s also truly heartbreaking in its consideration of what happens to the human spirit, the psyche, the soul, under that kind of strain.
“My character has a line which I love, which is ‘Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.’ He has a contingency plan for everything…but not this. When his six-year-old daughter is gone, and he loses faith in the police to find her, he figures he is the one who will save her. He has a primal need to protect his family, and right now that means finding Anna.”
Another element that sets this film apart from other thrillers is its complexity allowing it to transcend formulaic treatments of child abduction. During the course of the movie we see how the kidnapping affects the parents, the police, and indeed the other members of the town. As one example of the movie’s depth, Villeneuve pointed out in the production notes that the title doesn’t apply just to the missing children.
“Each character in the film is, in one way or another, a prisoner — of circumstances, of his own neuroses, of fear. Each individual has to struggle with his own imprisonment, each one will have to fight their way out.”
In addition to Jackman’s fine performance Gyllenhaal turns in a beautifully understated portrayal as the lead investigator in the case. He is a master of communicating without speaking, and we can tell what he’s thinking throughout the film. This is particularly evident at film’s thought-provoking conclusion.
Additional noteworthy performances belong to Dano, who is superbly weird as Alex, and Leo, who is equally eerie as his aunt. Bello, Davis, and Howard also are completely effective as the other bereaved parents.
“Prisoners” is unquestionably the best thriller of the year, and as such it earns a fully deserved final score of 10. One final thought, I defy any parents who see this film to refrain from rushing home and hugging their children.