Prisoners is intense. To maintain energy and interest for two and a half hours, a film needs to keep moving. This detective story with a vengeance twist doesn’t stop throwing new plot developments until the screen goes black.
Hugh Jackman, in a non-singing role, is the more bankable star of Prisoners. But Jake Gyllenhaal delivers the stronger performance as a police detective charged with solving the disappearance of two young girls.
The Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are suburban neighbors who get together for Thanksgiving. After the meal, their two young daughters go outside but soon disappear. Their older siblings recall seeing an old RV. When it is found, suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is brought in and questioned by detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). But Jones has an apparent learning disability and can barely talk. With no solid evidence, he is released.
Dover, however, is convinced that Jones is the perp. Shortly after Jones is turned loose, Dover imprisons Jones inside an abandoned apartment building where he beats and tortures him. He enlists the aid of the Birchs (first Mr., later Mrs.) in the effort to get Alex to tell where the girls are.
Loki meanwhile pursues other leads, which take him to a couple of creeps including a priest on his sex offender list (Len Cariou) and a slimy guy who buys kids clothing but has no kids (David Dastmalchian). Loki finds weird things in each of their homes. He stops by Alex Jones’ home and talks to his mom (Melissa Leo) in his search for solid evidence.
Loki’s frustration increases until the Birch girl is found. In the wake of that occurrence, almost everything gets resolved.
Jackman is not the first male actor to express extreme anger about a daughter being abducted, but he carries it off well. Bello, Howard and Davis, sadly, have little opportunity to show their acting chops. Dano plays the simpleton perfectly. Leo is initially unrecognizable as the dowdy middle-aged mom. And Dastmalchian has a look that should get him as many decent “creep” roles as he can handle.
The reason to see Prisoners (along with trying to figure it all out) is Gyllenhaal. He maintains a level of intensity that hovers just below the boiling point through most of the film. He does blow his top a time or two.
Jake owes a debt to writer Aaron Guzikowski for handing him a great character and to director Denis Villenueve for delivering the story in a straightforward way, without any tricky stuff.
Prisoners has the grim look of rainy winters down south. (It was filmed in Georgia, a state that actually does have sunny days, though not in this movie.) It has no real comic relief. Prisoners is intense.