by Bob Garver
Sept. 23, 2013. I see “Prisoners” as the unofficial kickoff to awards season. Little by little, we’re going to be seeing more movies that rely on critical praise to sell tickets instead of blatant bankability. “Prisoners” deals with heavy subject matter, mostly involving child abduction, so the story has little to offer the blockbuster crowd. It’s not that the fulm completely eschews commercial success; it boasts an impressive cast including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano. But the film doesn’t promise any kind of fun. It wants you to be moved by its forceful elements and for you to leave knowing that you’ve seen a good movie.
One dreary Thanksgiving, two children go missing. One’s parents are played by Jackman and Bello, the other’s by Howard and Davis. The safe, reasonable explanations quickly fade away and it becomes apparent that the children have been taken. A cocky young detective (Gyllenhaal) is sent to track down a suspicious RV seen in the area. Behind the wheel is Alex (Dano), a mentally unstable young man who lives with his aunt (Leo). It looks like the police have their man but the vehicle doesn’t contain any trace of the girls and Alex’s IQ is too low to pull off an elaborate crime with discretion. The police have to let Alex go, but Keller (Jackman) doesn’t think they’ve interrogated him vigorously enough. He takes matters into his own hands.
The angry Keller is the most memorable character in the movie. Distrustful of the police even before they let Alex go, he is determined to take control of the situation. He lets out his rage and aggression often, and yet you still get the feeling he’s keeping a lot bottled up. He interrogates another character claiming to want answers, but he chooses to attack the mouth, which of course would prevent the suspect from giving an answer. Perhaps inadvertently, he has put his own bloodlust ahead of his desire to find a solution and we wonder what kind of price he’ll pay for it.
Detective Loki is an interesting character in his own right, slowly realizing that he’s not as good as his reputation. They say early in the film that he’s solved every case he’s ever been assigned, but it seems that those were easy cases. Now he has this challenge before him, and his competence is becoming more and more questionable by the scene. At one point it looks like he’s botched the case entirely. He’s also learning that he can’t live with himself if he has even one defeat on is conscience.
The plot takes twists and turns, theories come and go, suspects shuffle around. Alex’s fate is hotly debated, risky since it’s not even clear if the girls have been taken. The characters’ decisions become increasingly inexplicable, and frankly the film tries to fill too many logic gaps by using the characters’ emotional state as an excuse for their irrational behavior.
I said I see “Prisoners” as the unofficial start of awards season, do I see it as an awards contender? Not in most categories. The mystery is compelling, but it doesn’t break any new ground. Nor does the movie have a look or feel that I don’t think I could get anywhere else. Most of the performances fade into the background as Jackman and the scenery-chewing Leo dominate the movie. These two I could see getting acting nominations. Jackman is incredibly intense for a guy known for playing a relatively apathetic superhero and Leo has a way-over-the-top style that I find somewhat off-putting, but it won her an Oscar for “The Fighter” three years ago. I recommend “Prisoners” for people who have been longing for a good serious movie to hold them over until we get better serious movies.
Tow and a half stars out of five.