Ripping a page out of reality, Prisoners follows two families and a police detective through a missing kids case. Missing kids of the kind in Prisoners usually end up dead. Sometimes they’re never found.
Amp up the intensity level of the topic as this one does, and you can multiply the word “hard” by 10. To put it nicely, Prisoners is a difficult movie to watch.
It begins with a holiday visit between two families. Each has a little girl. The girls go out for a walk and never return. An old RV was parked near where the children disappeared. When it’s located, the driver tries to escape the police. He’s caught, but no trace of the girls is found in the vehicle.
The driver has the IQ of a 10-year-old and can barely communicate with police. With no evidence to hold him, he’s released. Convinced he’s the one who did it, the father of one of the girls then kidnaps the suspect and hides him in an old abandoned apartment building. There, he tortures the young man for days, trying to get him to reveal the location of his daughter.
The father of the other girl participates.
Clues unfold and lead to new clues and take the movie different directions and to new suspects and more dead ends. Each revelation brings more doubt. Did he? Didn’t he?
Acting does not get any better than the ensemble cast of this one. Award-worthy work is done by Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano. Jackman — not known for serious acting chops — shows skills we’ve never seen. He is the father of one of the girls, and his character drives the movie. Gyllenhaal plays the detective. His moody, inward-looking performance is the rock that keeps Prisoners grounded.
Dano (There Will be Blood) specializes in quirky villainy. He does a bad guy that is completely original. Dano is usually a bit over the top, but his restraint with this character is what makes the performance noteworthy.
The three men play the three most important characters in the film and get most of the screen time. They’re supported by Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Maria Bello, who are also exceptional.
As a pure piece of art, the direction, cinematography, pacing and — especially — the acting are as good as it gets. The topic is intense, at times barbaric and the questions it silently asks have complex answers. Writer Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) and director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) often put you in the position of the two fathers and without asking out loud, make you wonder what you’d do and the lengths to which you’d go to recover your child from the hands of a monster.
Prisoners is a long movie that rivets you to your seat. Its more than 2.5 hours in length whizzes by in places and drags in others. Both Villeneuve and Guzikowski cop out and toward the climax stick in scenes that ought not be there. They’re almost too Hollywood and remove the film’s impressive real-life edge.
Where they don’t fail and where they never waiver is with the movie’s edge-of-your-seat intensity. Questions, questions and more questions are asked. Their answers — gratefully — are as uncomfortably cruel as their movie.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Mr. Movie rating: 4 1/2 stars
Rated R for mature themes, language, violence. It’s playing at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.