With Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout. 153 minutes.
You may feel like you’re enduring a life sentence while watching PRISONERS, but after two and half hours this lumbering, opposite-of-engaging, and utterly sorry excuse for a thriller finally comes to an end. Apparently this is going to be one of those “love it or hate it” sorts of movies, because there are people out there actually touting this as Oscar-worthy. What they see in it may be the film’s biggest mystery.
The Dovers and the Birches are enjoying a get together at Thanksgiving when their two six-year-old girls vanish. The girls had expressed interest in a mysterious RV parked in the neighborhood earlier in the day, the only clue to their disappearance. Jake Gyllenhaal is Detective Loki (!) and he’s stymied at every turn as he follows the leads. The chief suspect is a mentally disturbed young man named Alex (Paul Dano), but the police don’t have the evidence to hold him.
As the days tick by, the parents get frantic, no one more so than Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who decides to take matters into his own hands. He takes Alex prisoner and proceeds to torture him for information about the girls. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) becomes aware of this, as does his wife (Viola Davis), but do nothing. Keller’s wife (Maria Bello) is doped up on prescription drugs, so it’s hard to tell what she does know.
At a bloated 153 minute running time, this pedestrian and distasteful saga of endangered children is presented as if it’s depicting mankind’s struggle with good and evil. We get lots of anguished close-ups of Keller and Loki, but since they––like everyone else in the movie––are little more than stick figures, we don’t really know what they’re going through. When we finally get the solution to the mystery, it is from out of left field, playing out to one of the most unsatisfying climaxes of the year. Without giving away any plot surprises, what possesses Loki to enter a dangerous situation without calling for backup? This is as absurd a movie cliché as the people in a haunted house movie deciding to split up to investigate the eerie and mysterious noises.
Amazingly, the film’s acting has been drawing attention, but there’s really so little to it. Bello, Davis, and Howard are utterly wasted in nothing-roles. Gyllenhaal and Jackman each get to play variations of gritty determination with Jackman becoming increasingly unraveled. Some may find some cleverness in the fact that the film’s title can apply not only to the missing girls but to many of the film’s other characters as well. In a 90-minute film, that might make for an interesting observation. By the time of the film’s finale, however, it has long ceased to be so.
Beside the film’s turgid pacing and barely-sketched-in characters, the film has one other fatal flaw: there are so many red herrings here you might think you were at the Fulton Fish Market. One expects false leads in this kind of mystery, but with so much detail and effort given to what turns out to be the filmmakers spinning their wheels, there’s no sense of satisfaction in the payoff, either in the resolution of the plot or the fate of the characters.
The verdict? “Prisoners” is cruel and unusual punishment.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His first novel, Shh! It’s A Secret: A Novel About Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide has just been released. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.