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Prisoners (A Movie Review)


Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James and Anthony Reynolds.

Screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski.

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.

Distributed by Warner Bros. 153 minutes. Rated R.

Prisoners achieves the quite tricky task of taking a man whose seven-year-old daughter has been kidnapped and quite probably murdered and still makes him out to be arguably the worst person in the whole story.

A big part of the problem is that the character of the dad is so unlikable that it is hard to sympathize with him at all as a character, despite the tragic circumstance that has exploded his life. Even before the little girls disappear he comes off as off-puttingly gruff, bullying and sullen. And once they are gone, he is totally out of control. He ignores and defies the police, assumes that he is always right, takes the law in his own hands.

I get the fact that this is intentional on the part of the film and sort of the point: To explore the gray areas of a very dark situation and embrace the heart of darkness. That doesn't make the guy any less of an asshole, though.

Prisoners is a dark, tragic film in many ways, and by denying its audience a rooting interest – only Jake Gyllenhaal's numbed cop, Maria Bello's drug addled mother and Dylan Minette's smart and sensitive older brother come close – it becomes difficult for the audience to find any kind of footing. The world of Prisoners is so bleak that disaster is not only now not unexpected, but it also almost feels inevitable.

Hugh Jackman plays against type in this film as Keller Dover, a self-employed plumber and weekend survivalist who appears to have the perfect life – his own business, a nice little house, a beautiful, loving wife Grace (Bello), a strapping young son (Minnette) and a cute as a button little girl Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). However, from the very beginning scene, in which Dover bullies his sensitive son on a hunting trip that obviously discomfits the boy, you can tell that the ideal life he is trying to build is something of a mirage.

One afternoon Keller and the family are hanging with his best friend and close neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their little daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). Sometime in the afternoon, the Dovers and the Birches realize that their two young girls have disappeared.

They search the neighborhood desperately, particularly looking for an old RV that had been seen earlier by the Dover son. The police, led by burnt out Detective Loki (Gyllanhaal) are brought in and eventually track down the RV, which is being driven by a mentally challenged man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano).

The police look into Jones as a suspect, but quickly decide that A) there is no evidence that Jones had interacted with the girls at all, and B) he did not have the mental capacity to pull off such a premeditated crime.

However, Keller Dover has determined that this slow man was guilty and Dover refuses to believe that the police could possibly know more than him. So instead of helping the police track down other leads, he actively obstructs their investigation. Even though the police have repeatedly assured him that the man could not be responsible for the crime, he kidnaps the guy and hides him in an abandoned apartment building that he had inherited, dragging his buddy Birch into the situation as he tries to torture the handicapped man in order to extract information about the disappeared girls.

Of course, if the guy doesn't know the answers, can he give them to his captors, no matter how much they beat him?

The film keeps things somewhat ambiguous: Jones doesn't have the mental capacity to really talk for himself and throughout there is the specter that perhaps he really has committed the crime for which he was suspected by the dad.

However, even if Jones was definitely guilty – which is far, far from certain throughout – what is quite clear is that Keller Dover is a sadistic, closed-minded, selfish prick.

So, what is Prisoners saying, exactly? That because a horrible crime has been perpetrated on him, the guy is somehow justified for taking the law into his own hands and torturing someone else nearly to death?

That hardly seems to be a fitting moral to any story.

Jay S. Jacobs

Copyright ©2013 All rights reserved. Posted: October 25, 2013.

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