Prisoners clocks in at 153 minutes. For the first two hours the film is a superior thriller and drama, well worth the time we invest in the story. But towards the end of the film a plot development derails the film. Unlike the great mystery thriller films, Prisoners doesn’t leave us thinking how ingenious the film was to keep the big reveal hidden until the end, but rather reveals itself to be little more than a whodunit, albeit a beautifully shot one.
The film immediately introduces protagonist Keller (Hugh Jackman) spotlighting his religious devotion, with his recitation of the Lord’s Prayer and the crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror; his faith is further underscored by the vigils held by his community later in the film. He says at one point that he hasn’t touched drink in nine years, and his wife when grieving blames him for their daughter’s disappearance, saying he promised he would protect the family. All of these clues and more hint that something has happened in Keller’s past that made him who he is, and this backstory, we hope, will come into play later as the parallels he faces from kidnapping the supposed kidnapper (Paul Dano) and resorting to un-holy violence drive the film forward. Sadly, none of this comes to anything other than a showcase of some excellent acting and cinematography; for Keller has no backstory, nor does his character have any real arc to speak of after the first act is over.
Keller chains the kidnap suspect, an man with “the IQ of a 10 year old”, to a sink in an abandoned apartment building and beats him until his eyes have swelled shut; though he knows he may never get the answers he want, he persists with the torture. What are the effects on Keller? How can he turn to extreme violence so quickly on a man who, despite his looks and appearance, has no evidence against him? What happens to a man when he must accept he has crossed a line of no return? How does this kidnap and torture affect Franklin and Nancy and how will affect their family stability if they get their daughters back alive? The film, however, doesn’t use this plot development for anything other than a ‘red herring’ and renders it totally disposable to move on to the next twist.
Also linked into the story is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who questioned and subsequently released the suspect and now leads the investigation to find the girls. What is his story? Why the tattoos on his neck and hands? Why the distant, haunted look on his face at all time? Has he seen this type of case before? None of the characters in the film have any depth to support the fantastic acting the cast brings. A better film would have emphasized the duality between kidnappings and the effect this has on the two husbands, Keller’s wife not knowing, and the dynamics between Keller and Loki, and not lead us to the ridiculous ending and wasted opportunity we subsequently get.
The film is not without it merits, however. The film allows Hugh Jackman to give what is easily his best performance to date (we can only wonder why he’s wasted time on CGI-heavy productions when he has so much more to offer), and there are other excellent performances throughout (though Viola Davis is criminally underused). Director Denis Villeneuve offers a mature, dark, and at times unsettling film for the first two hours and even when the film derails the direction is still of a high standard. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins produces yet another master class in lighting; the shadows and darkened areas of rooms combined with the pale skins tones and dull interiors gives Prisoners a tone which does a lot more to create a sense of character than the script ever does. Deakins’ work here deserved a better screenplay but he yet again shows why he is one of the best at what he does.
It feels disheartening to speak of such disappointment with Prisoners because there is a lot to recommend in terms of visuals and acting, but though for a while it feels like the film is destined to be one of the year’s best, the film is a missed opportunity at genuine greatness. If only the story developed into something more challenging and thought-provoking, we could have been looking back on Prisoners as a go-to model for a modern, adult thriller rather than the slightly above average film we ultimately got.