Suburban Pennsylvania neighborhoods seem to emit a sense of security for me, with the serenity that cannot be found in the city, the smiling faces of neighbors, and the familiar curves of the roads driven on so many times in the past. Especially around the winter holidays, this nostalgic feeling is amplified by the background sounds of the game on TV, people setting up the dining room table extension to accommodate for the day’s company, and the persistent snow flurries outside falling onto the slush that it will eventually become. Such is life in wintertime PA, a pleasant affair despite the weather. And it’s on this visual canvas that director Denis Villeneuve perfectly spins a false community cocoon before setting it all ablaze in Prisoners, an effective, extremely well-acted story of two neighborhood families desperately clamoring to save their abducted daughters before the trail goes cold.
It’s Thanksgiving morning. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) quietly looks on as his teenage son Ralph pulls the trigger to hunt his first deer. Ralph very much looks up to his father– a strong, thoughtful carpenter who loves his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and works hard to make ends meet for Ralph and Keller’s daughter, Anna. As the two drive back to their home in rural PA, Keller advises his son to always “be ready,” something that Keller’s police officer father drilled into him at Ralph’s age. It illustrates a generational sense of duty; a protective, familial bond that is even more clear as the Dovers walk together down the street to the house of Franklin (Terrence Howard) & Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), their friends hosting the holiday with two daughters of their own.
From the moment the doorbell rings, there’s the holiday hustle and bustle we all can relate to, as the young ones run around causing harmless mischief while the teens go straight for the TV and the adults exchange pleasantries over drinks. After Thanksgiving dinner, the tipsy parents tell loud stories in the living room, the teens return to the TV, and the young ones still have plenty of playtime energy to burn. As the tryptophan starts to wear off, Keller realizes that he has not seen Anna or Franklin’s daughter since they asked for permission to return to the Dover house hours ago to retrieve a toy. Keller asks Ralph, who was supposed to accompany her, whether he has seen his sister. As Ralph and his Dad start to put together that Anna and her play pal left the house themselves, sheer panic begins to set in. They run up and down the streets of the housing plan screaming the girls’ names. Ralph remembers pulling Anna off of an RV she climbed on when she was playing. Keller sprints back to Franklin’s house and tells him to call the police. An APB is immediately put out for the RV. An Amber alert is issued. And just like that, the bubble is burst and the audience is left breathless as the realization sets in that this can happen to anyone, anywhere, and unfortunately all too often.
When an RV matching the description is reported being seen in a gas station lot, parked next to the woods during a torrential downpour, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the first to the scene. Loki is a brilliant and enigmatic young officer with a flawless case record. After the RV takes off franticly, smashing into a tree, Loki finds Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a strange, soft-spoken young man who lives in the area, hiding in the wreckage. Detective Loki promptly arrests Alex on suspicion of abducting the children. But being creepy isn’t a crime, and because Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old, he is deemed a non-threat and eventually released to his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). This infuriates Keller, a father tirelessly searching for a way to re-secure his daughter’s safety and reestablish his paternal responsibility. Keller is sure that Alex knows something, and while Detective Loki, who wants to maintain his perfect record, “isn’t crossing anyone off” his list, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands.
Prisoners succeeds first and foremost because of its performances. Hugh Jackman is absolutely incredible as Keller. His performance is complex; this isn’t the one-note troubled father routine we’ve seen many times over. A recovering alcoholic with inherent daddy issues, Keller isn’t the white knight one would think. He’s a flawed man who cares deeply for his family; so much so, that he’s manifested his inherited “be ready” mentality into being something of a doomsday prepper. This backstory is implicit throughout Jackman’s performance and makes his powerlessness all the more heart-wrenching. These dreadful proceedings are etched into Jackman’s face, and he manages to retain the sympathy of the audience even as he begins to make more morally ambiguous decisions. Equally as captivating is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Loki, whose quiet, nuanced performance I fear will be lost against Jackman’s more emotionally explicit turn as Keller. Detective Loki is strange and interesting; his professional, buttoned-up wardrobe juxtaposed against his slicked back hair and large neck tattoos. He is largely calm and collected, with consistent eye twitching serving as a reminder of the pain and rage lurking just beneath the surface, a result of the internal toll the horrific reality of this world has taken on him. All of this gives the character an edge and emotional depth that we can get behind, even when he seems at odds with Jackman. The supporting cast of Prisoners is an all-star lineup unto itself: Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are equally powerful as the parents of the other missing girl, Melissa Leo establishes a phenomenal presence with little screen time, and Paul Dano turns in another harrowing performance with very few lines. I cannot say enough about this cast; they take an above-average script to deeply affecting levels, leaving the audience wondering how they would respond to being put in a position like this.
If I have one gripe, it is with the film’s runtime. At two hours and twenty-six minutes, Prisoners is so emotionally exhausting that by the time we get to the film’s climax, it doesn’t pack the punch that it should. The characters (and the audience) are completely drained of the ability to completely process the disturbing events as they unfold. We’re left in insomniac survival mode, not fully realizing the gravity of the situations we’ve witnessed until long after we’ve left the theater. Some of the smaller scenes in the middle of the film could have been left on the cutting room floor without numbing the story. But I digress, as this is a mere blemish on an otherwise great film, and may even simply be a result of the subject matter.
The acting singlehandedly puts Prisoners a cut above other dramas we’ve seen recently. It very easily could have been a poor man’s Ransom, but instead, Prisoners finds its soul in studying its characters. It presents the events with no fanfare and chooses to ask its audience to look within themselves to judge what is right and wrong. The sheer courage of asking this much from the viewer is what makes Prisoners different. It’s a must-see film for the performances alone. Just “be ready."