Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a man of patched together contradictions, bound with borrowed shreds of catch phrase and philosophy. Hoping that strength and diligence alone can shepherd him and his family through whatever adversity life might bring.
Dover is the one character that writer Aaaron Guzikowski's long labyrinth of s script really bothers to reveal to any depth in Prisoners. When a distraught Dover - coming undone in the days after his daughter and that of a neighbor have disappeared - reveals to detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) that he's taking his first drink of alcohol in nine and a half years, it's not the least bit surprising. Keller Dover has the desperate, detoured energy of a former addict that approaches zealotry when stretched. "Pray for the best and expect the worst," we hear him utter more than once in Prisoners.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has given us an ample serving of the worst through his last two features (or three for that matter; I've not yet seen his 2009 feature Polytechnique, but it deals with the 1989 massacre of 14 female students in Montreal). Both Prisoners and his previous Incendies are long, thorny stories; over 280 minutes of human suffering, violence as extreme as it is ghastly in its variety, physically and emotionally.
The setting for Prisoners could hardly be more different than that of Incendies. Most of the latter's dark business takes placed an arid, unnamed Middle Eastern state. Prisoner's is, it would seem, intentionally, generically American. Atlanta and two small Georgia towns were locations used for an upper middle class subdivision and more dreary urban precincts.
A steady rain falls as the young daughters of two of that subdivision's families disappear one Thanksgiving day. Later the rain gives way to a sticking snow, better to highlight the avenging angel cum demon who is Keller Dover. During these coldest moments, meteorologically and otherwise, he goes about his dire rounds beneath a hooded jacket, grim face dominated by a thick a prow of goatee.
Prisoners 153 minutes will pass very quickly for most, much as the toughest moments might be viewed through the slightly spread fingers of one's hand, as the desperate Dover tries to torture information out of the seemingly meek and simple Alex Jones (Paul Dano). It was Jones who parked a weather-beaten RV in the hilly subdivision of the Dover and the Birch families on the fateful Thanksgiving day. The young daughters of both families left the gathering at the Birch's to retrieve something at the Dover household, never to return. A tense story of numerous, unexpected turns ensues. Only in the latter stages of Villeneuve's long film does the director fail to maintain the tension which has been strung so tightly throughout. After all the wrenching action of his last two films, it's as if the director finally reached a point of diminishing returns with this sort of material. Perhaps Villeneuvve sensed that as well. Along with Prisoners, he premiered a second film at the 2013 Toronto Film Festival. That film, Enemy (also starring Jake Gyllenhaal, in a double role), apparently more of an erotic thriller, is due to be released in 2014.
There are, essentially, two strands of plot twisting and twisting through Prisoners, each involving a man obsessed. There is Dover, kidnapping the meek Jones after he's released by the police. And there is Detective Loki, keeping one eye on the increasingly erratic behavior of Dover, while at the same time doggedly pursuing other leads. As Loki, Gyllenhaal is tightly and almost perpetually contained within a oxford shirt, buttoned to the top and not quite large enough, bursting, it would seem, as much from his own restless energy as the bulk of his upper body. The detective has left no case unsolved is clearly intent on keeping his record spotless. Loki is to some degree the classic lone wolf lawman, with no patience for the foot dragging of his slower superiors. There is a bit of movie cliche here, but to the credit of Aaron Guzikowki's script, Loki's obsessiveness never wavers. There's no great reveal of nobility in the end; a grim sense of victory at best. This, perhaps, as much the hand of the director as the writer.
Prisoners is arresting for much of its length. But as the torture of Jones in an abandoned apartment building grows more extreme and the plot takes turn after turn, the film begins to feel like just a better made version of the torture porn and can't look away morbidity that usually passes for thrills in the multiplex. Mr. Guzikowski certainly wants to keep us guessing for more than two hours. And perhaps he even wants to make us think. But it's really the shortcomings of his script as much as any child-snatching malefactor who is revealed at the conclusion of the muddled story.
For all the searing violence of Incendies, the dimensions of which billowed into the realm of tragedy, there was a kind of grim matching of story and place. The country was never named, but the internecine violence, religious and otherwise, mirrored that of Lebanon through the 1970's and 80's. Rape, torture and even incest were not just macabre twists of plot, but apt symbols of what was transpiring in the country so twisted by circumstance and turning upon itself. Any such connection with place or culture in Prisoners is tenuous at best.
After much misdirection, Keller Dover is ultimately told that his daughter, like those of other disappeared children, were taken to drive the parents into the sort of demons that he has become. Dover is a man whose morality and religious principles clearly get jettisoned in the attempt to torture the location of his daughter out of Jones. Beyond the Christianity put aside, perhaps it is also supposed to be a point of significance that Dover's favorite song is said to be "The Star Spangled Banner." This revealed during the Thanksgiving gathering at which Franklin Birch (Terence Howard) attempts a wavering rendition on trumpet. Does all of the violence, the vigilantism mirror America's dubious international record post 9/11? Perhaps. Does the very tenuous connection in Prisoners provide symbolic weight to justify the brutality? Not so much.
Largely lost in the dark maze of Prisoners is Howard as one of the grieving fathers. He plays his one or two notes - the distraught end of the emotional register, if not the trumpet - well enough, but he's obviously capable of much more. Utilized even less are the considerable talents of Viola Davis and Maria Bello as the lost girls' mothers. Bello is forced to wander (or lay) in an emotional coma of grief and depression for most of the film.
Prisoner's throws several dark curves in an attempt to extend the story and keep the audience guessing. In addition to the likely-looking suspects of Alex Jones and Bob Taylor, Detective Loki also scours the area for sex offenders. During one such stop on those dreary rounds, he calls at the home of Father Patrick Dunn (Len Cariou). The former priest is passed out drunk, allowing Loki time to discover a kind of dungeon under the home, which he reaches by a door hidden behind a refrigerator. As Loki lowers himself into this space, it's yet another shadowy corner of the mind, another primal fear that Villeneuve ably explores.
Loki finds a corpse in the subterranean space, one who had been tied to a chair and clearly left to die. Around the neck of the dead body is necklace with a maze design. This a very apt symbol for all that takes place in Prisoners, and one that looms large in the attempt to cohere the story. There's supposed to be a connection between the Father Dunn, Taylor, Jones and ultimately, the latter's mother, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo).
After Alex Jones is released from custody, very much to the disbelief of Keller Dover, the distraught father decides to take matters into his own hands. As he's struggling with that decision, sitting in his truck cab, watching Jones leave the house to walk the family's dog, he sees and hears two things that strengthen his resolve. Jones first looks around to see if anyone is watching and then lifts the dog off the ground by the leash, half strangling the creature. The word "sociopath" might as well flash on the screen at this point. He follows up that brief torture by singing a child's adaptation of a McDonald's commercial jingle, the same through which the missing girls giggled at the Thanksgiving gathering. That's a coincidence that Dover can't ignore. It's also one, like the yank of the dog, the story doesn't begin to explain away.
Prisoners is another polished piece of work from director Denis Villeneuve, another long night's march of tortured souls and bodies. But as Keller Dover confronts Holly Jones - Melissa Leo managing to overact by consciously underacting - it's like the lights have been flipped on and all that has seemed so scary in the dark now just looks a bit silly. A last sounding of a token of childhood innocence from beneath the ground at film's end seems more a feeble cry for significance than a character's desperate call for help.