1 and 1/2 out of 4 stars
For his first English-language feature, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”) takes a garden variety American revenge flick and drowns it in brittle, European-style dread and mope. Set in rural Pennsylvania but shot in Rockdale County and Atlanta, “Prisoners” in laden with religious symbolism and is only successful at pointing out the frustration felt by the families of crime victims.
Clocking in at 153 excruciating minutes, it is designed to be a crime thriller think-piece but in reality is little more than exploitive torture porn. There have been lots of movies like “Prisoners” (“The Silence of the Lambs,” “Se7en” and “Misery”) but none as so gratuitously violent, shoddily written and lacking in logic. A good story, no matter how bleak, will go far in offsetting grim subject matter but “Prisoners” is riddled with plot holes and overcooked with go-nowhere red herrings. Even with its’ many faults, it’s well-acted (the cast includes no less than five former Oscar-nominees and one winner) but will be hard-pressed to be embraced by anyone beyond a few dozen critics and punishment gluttons.
The first 30 minutes is easily the high point on a number of levels. Keller (Hugh Jackman) is a God-fearing, doomsday libertarian, hunter/outdoorsy type who is married to Grace (Maria Bello) and makes a living doing home improvements. Shortly after they finish Thanksgiving dinner with neighbors Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard), the two couples’ toddler daughters go out to play and suddenly vanish. Noting the presence of a suspicious, beat-up vehicle parked nearby earlier in the day, Keller’s son makes it easier for the police — led by laser-focused Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to quickly track down and apprehend the suspect (Paul Dano as Alex).
Practically mute, befuddled and possessing the intelligence of a 10-year-old, Alex is questioned by Loki but because the CSI guys can’t find any evidence on him or in the vehicle, the police have no choice but to release him. This understandably causes Keller to go completely bonkers and, with time slipping away, he decides to go rogue and strays far off the reservation. While all of the principals (including a slippery Melissa Leo) generally play it low key, Jackman (as his miswritten character should be) is a bit too wired and unglued. He brought just a tad too much of his “Wolverine” character with him to the set.
If you’ve been at a movie theater or in front of a TV sometime in the last month you’ve likely already seen the trailer which (big surprise) gives away far too much of the plot; or so it would seem. The semi-good news is that the trailer essentially covers everything you’ve read up to this point but largely avoids most of what takes place in the second half of the film. The really bad news is what goes down in the second half makes little sense, takes up a bunch of time and employs a whole lot of misdirection.
In all fairness to screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski, he connects a few crucial dots and does provide a clue here and there that leads to a payoff, but they are far too few to warrant such an epic narrative length and are not always related to the main point: the kidnapping of a child will drive a parent crazy and into madness. Reflecting the superb compositional structure of Roman Polanski, Villeneuve values look and style over content which would be fine if the visuals were at all appealing. The mid-fall time frame (brown and grey), the constant overcast, rain/snow and ramshackle interiors only amplify the depressing nature of the story. “Prisoners” is probably not a title the Georgia Film Commission wants to place near the top of their “produced-in” list. In every sense, this is an unappealing movie; visually and otherwise.
“Prisoners” also marks the first major studio release of the fall season that screams “we want Oscar nominations!” This is what the studios refer to and market as “an important motion picture” (not a movie or film mind you — but a serious motion picture) that is mucho-depressing, tediously long, stuffed with extraneous filler, difficult to watch and even harder to stomach. It will make you want to rush home, take a scalding-hot shower and then lock-up your children in a hermetically-sealed vault. (Warner Bros.)