Photo courtesy of Warner Bros Films
There is a great film buried somewhere inside Prisoners—and I want to see it. Seriously, I want to see this exact same film—same actors, same characters, same premise, heck, even the same director (providing he can learn to restrain himself). I just want to see less of it.
It’s not that Prisoners is too long (although it is), it’s that it’s too much everything. Too dark, too melodramatic, too improbable, too horrific. Indeed, despite an obvious sense of itself as a kind of high-minded studio art film, it’s really just a supremely well-dressed horror movie.
One Thanksgiving, two little girls—the daughters of neighbors and family friends—go missing. An RV had been spotted parked on their street and when the cops find the van, the driver (Paul Dano) tries to flee. He’s brought in for questioning but he has the IQ of a 10-year-old—he doesn’t seem to have the wherewithal to pull off a kidnapping, let alone hide his motives. “You can’t pass a lie detector test if you don’t understand the question,” says Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the intrepid but emotionally damaged detective assigned to the case.
But Keller Dover (a cagey and excellent Hugh Jackman), the father of one of the missing girls, is convinced that the man-child, whose name is Alex, knows more than he’s saying. He attacks Alex in the police station parking lot, demanding answers and Alex whispers, well, something. The fact that Alex has a quiet and strange voice is utilized cannily by director Dennis Villeneuve. Dover is certain that Alex has said something incriminating. But did he? We in the audience aren’t so sure.
In the film’s smart opening shots—where Dover teaches his teenage son how to hunt and kill a deer—we’ve established that Dover is a survivalist who it a bit suspicious of authority. So he takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping Alex and torturing him for answers. He doesn’t tell his grieving wife (Maria Bello), but he does tell the other little girl’s father Franklin (Terrence Howard), a mild-mannered type in a sweater vest, who is appropriately horrified—until Dover manages to convince him that torturing this scared young man is their only hope to save their daughters. (There are multiple clues that Alex is hiding something—so we share both Franklin’s revulsion and Dover’s suspicions.) Eventually, Franklin tells his tough-minded wife (Viola Davis) about the torture—her reaction might surprise you.
What would you do? How might you react in this situation? Is Dover’s insane behavior justified at all? That’s the film’s core premise and it’s more than enough.
But Villeneuve just can’t help himself. He has to lay it on thick—adding horror trope after horror trope to this already over-stuffed mix. There are snakes and dank basements and convenient potions and a nasty little fake-out involving what appear to be dead bodies. The big reveal at the end could’ve been slapped on any B-level horror film, complete with over-acting by the evil-doer in question.
Look, there are two ways you can approach Prisoners: You can make the case that it does so much right, we should be willing to overlook what it does wrong. Or you can argue that, precisely because it does so much right, its faults are all the more frustrating. I’m more in that second camp. Yes, I recommend Prisoners, but I’ll always lament what could have been.