On a gluttonous thanksgiving afternoon, the Dover and Birch families find their worst nightmares fully realised when their youngest children Anna and Joy go missing from their quiet residential street. The children’s older siblings recall the two girls playing on a parked RV, and a man hunt begins for its owner Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Called in to lead the abduction investigation is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a quietly angry man who the families are assured has solved every case he’s ever been assigned to. The investigation comes to a standstill however when Alex is released due to lack of evidence, and Dover patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman) takes it upon himself to torture the young man for answers.
Keller is a man whose motto is “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” He spends the film’s opening training his son to hunt, and professing to a musical taste that consists solely of Bruce Springsteen and the Star Spangled Banner. His Americana bravado cliché is saved, only just, by a bruising performance from Hugh Jackman, who manages to perfectly portray a man conflicted by his unfettered emotion and his alpha male duties to protect and provide. Jake Gyllenhaal too convinces as a man whose emotional balance is unequivocally tied to the finding of these two young girls. Unfortunately, they’re the only two actors given any space to excel, a shame given the film’s enviable cast list. The film devotes precious little time to Terrance Howard and Viola Davis as Franklin and Nancy Birch, a couple who find themselves unwitting co-conspirators in Keller’s controversial problem solving. But no one is more underserved than Maria Bello as Keller’s wife, a woman who after the initial trauma is all but written out of the scenario.
The film also struggles with what direction it wants to take. We get the bizarre, biblical leanings of a psychological thriller like Seven, a reach for the narrative complexity of Zodiac, the bureaucratic angst of a standard police procedural flick, and a subplot that strives to ask its audience about their moral barometer. As such Prisoners meanders from one theme to another, often neglecting any sense of focus and pace. The film’s 153 minute running is bizarre and unnecessary as the middle section is begging for a trim and tighten. Detective Loki is presented as man of extraordinary skill, and yet the film’s length means that often the audience is a couple of steps ahead before he comes to any realisations.
Despite this, the film effectively presents a brooding and stark atmosphere, thanks mainly to Roger Deakins’ ever reliable cinematography and Johan Johannsson’s creeping score. There’s also enough mystery presented in Prisoners’ first act to propel your curiosity throughout the film, setting the tone for a narrative of interconnected twists and turns. Whilst not quite the lofty stellar thriller its advertising campaign may want you to believe, Prisoners is a solid drama that’s worth a watch.