It's Thanksgiving, and the Dovers have been invited to spend the day at the Birches. After dinner, their two young daughters Anna and Joy go to play, but later the parents and siblings realise the two young girls are missing. After they track down a suspicious RV that was parked in the area, the driver is revealed as Alex Jones, a man with the IQ of a ten year old. The evidence isn't there and Alex is released, but Keller Dover refuses to believe Alex didn't do it, and so tracks down and imprisons Alex in his former house, torturing him relentlessly until he gives up the location of the girls. However, Detective Loki is more interested in the suspicious character he witnesses at a vigil being held for the two girls...
The Black List is a list produced every year of the most exciting unproduced screenplays without any studio attachments. Previously the list has contained gems like Juno, Lars and the Real Girl, The Social Network and Up in the Air. Prisoners is another such film, ranking fourth on the Black List way back in 2009. Almost immediately after its inclusion, X-Men's Bryan Singer signed on to direct with Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale on to star. Then, Wahlberg and Bale were forced to leave after a scheduling clash with The Fighter, and Singer departed soon after. Next up was Antoine Fuqua on to direct, then Daniel Espinosa who would have had a fan of his, Leonardo DiCaprio, star. Finally, Denis Villeneuve signed on to make his English language debut with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo on board to star. Finally, after nearly 5 years of production turmoil, Prisoners has come to the screens, but can it deliver the heavy punch it promised to deliver back when it was on the Black List? Overwhelmingly yes, yes it can.
I'll be honest, the trailer is extremely deceptive. I was not expecting Prisoners to be the way it was, but in a way, I'm glad it didn't deliver on the trailer. Having watched Prisoners, I felt more rewarded than I probably would have done had I seen the film I was expecting to see. Confused? Don't be. Prisoners is certainly a thriller, the trailer got that right, but it goes far darker and twists and turns more than the trailer lets on. Perhaps that's a good thing, it doesn't divulge any of the films secrets (I'm not spoiling anything, it's a thriller, there are going to be secrets which are ultimately revealed). It's an extremely clever script, with multiple threads running concurrently along one plot line. It's all kept under control, and everything ultimately comes together, there's not a thread left untied and that's something that's hard to come by in today's modern cinematic efforts. However, it is able to tie everything up by extending its running time. This is a long film, and it feels like it. You realise two or three times during the film that you've been there a long time and it still doesn't look like being over any time soon.
What makes the long running time feel even longer is the fact the film deals with some extremely dark material; kidnapping, missing children, psychopaths, torture, forced imprisonment... This is not a light hearted film. The film is bright and sunny for roughly 10 minutes, until the children go missing. After that, you know it's downhill from there, much like Mystic River, except this explores territory unseen in a film that deals with child abduction before. You get the grieving parents, of course, and the tough determined cop, but the film branches out into scenarios you wouldn't expect, scenarios which are at times extremely difficult to watch. But, it's a cracking mystery, one that leaves you guessing right until the very end and one that comes together nicely over the space of two and a half hours. There's a lot to get through, and there's a lot of time to do it. All the while, the cinematography in this film is great, there's a lot of contrast between man and nature on display as decrepit buildings and mother nature steal the frame. It all ties into the heavy theme of the film, and so relies on some top draw performances from its leads to be able to carry out this traumatic experience.
Hugh Jackman, unfortunately, seems out of place as Keller Dover, a man who's lost his daughter and is desperate to get her back by any means necessary. He doesn't fit the character very well, no matter how hard he tries. Don't get me wrong, it's not a lazy performance by any means, he just doesn't ever seem comfortable with what he's being asked to do, which leaves him unable to deliver the necessary emotion required for such a sensitive role. However, on the flip side, Jake Gyllenhaal is fantastic as Detective Loki, performing a gruff outsider role that goes against type, and he delivers in spades; this may even be on of his best performances I've ever seen, and he's had some good ones. Aside from these two, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are unremarkable as the Birches, as is Maria Bello as Keller's wife. Paul Dano never goes full retard playing Alex Jones, and he does well in an extremely difficult role. Finally, Melissa Leo is surprisingly good as Holly Jones, seemingly a bit-part character who Leo truly makes her own in the second half of the film and makes her one of the stand outs in this film.
Overall, Prisoners is an extremely hard film to sit through, not that it's bad, it's just an extremely uncomfortable subject matter and viewing experience. The subject matter is dark and continues to get darker as the film progresses. However, this is all necessary to tell what is ultimately a very clever story which utilizes its characters and surroundings well. It hasn't received much attention, and it'll probably disappear into the ether, but you can do a lot worse than to sit down for a few hours and watch this. Like Sympathy for Mr Vengeance, it's a dark story that'll make you sit up and pay attention. It never exploits, it only ever tells a story. Good luck.