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Film Review: “Prisoners” Is a Compelling, Brilliantly Acted Thriller

Photo: Alcon Entertainment

The 2 hour and 26 minute Prisoners seemed like such a daunting task when I finally sat down to watch it, and I still can’t definitively say that the running time is completely justified.

However, the slow-burn and length of this movie helps increase the amount of tension and anxiety you feel while watching Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, in their own separate and very different ways, race to find two missing girls.

Prisoners first introduces Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a somewhat religious, very protective, and safety-conscious father, while he’s out hunting a deer with his teenage son. On Thanksgiving day, while visiting their neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, Keller’s daughter and the Birch’s daughter go missing. Alex Jones (Paul Dano) becomes prime suspect #1, since his RV was seen parked near their home.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays a detective named Loki, who has obviously gone through his own share of demons as evidenced through his various tattoos, solitary lifestyle, and facial tic (which I found to be just a little distracting).

After the police are forced to release Alex after the 48-hour holding period, Keller, insistent on Alex’s guilt, kidnaps him and begins to torture him for information on the two missing girls.

The movie’s theme of a metaphorical prison is a little on the nose and not at all executed in a very effective way. However, Prisoners is a very well-made thriller. If the lengthy running time is any indication, Prisoners definitely takes its sweet time to build lots of tension and anxiety in the audience, and it’s quite successful in doing so. It helps that the story itself is engaging; I enjoyed watching it develop and I was interested to see how the film would resolve.

Prisoners is built around Hugh Jackman’s character, and even though I’m not a parent, it was easy to identify with Keller’s anguish and sense of loss. There are a wide range of emotions that Jackman is able to convey, and there are moments where his facial expression is downright frightening. It’s a testament to Jackman’s acting expertise, and he certainly gets to do the most acting out of everybody in the cast. Jake Gyllenhaal is the second lead in the movie, and although his acting is a little more understated than Jackman’s, it’s equally as effective in portraying his character.

Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, and Viola Davis, despite their very impressive resumes, don’t get to do a whole lot. In fact, Howard and Davis’ characters are largely forgotten in the second half of the movie, despite the role they play in the first half regarding Keller’s actions. They’re all brilliant actors, however, and it comes across in Prisoners. Paul Dano doesn’t get a lot of dialogue, and I actually found that to be more effective than if they had given him more lines.

Despite its attempts, Prisoners doesn’t offer much in the way of deeper meanings or symbolism. Prisoners is a very uncomfortable movie, however, leaving you with a sense of unease and offering little – if any – breathing room. The story is engaging, the actors are interesting to watch, and I was anxiously anticipating every scene in this movie. Ultimately, that’s why I found Prisoners to be such a great viewing experience.

You can watch Prisoners on DVD starting December 17th. Pre-order a copy here.

four and a half stars

  • Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard
  • Director: Denis Villeneuve
  • Running Time: 153 minutes
  • Genre: Drama, Thriller