A brutal maze.
Prisoners is a film that does not pull any punches, it is unashamedly brutal and very ambiguous in its nature. The film is primarily about a man’s search for his daughter, who had gone missing during thanksgiving with her friend, a family friend.
What’s interesting however, is that the film’s narrative strays from the norm and focusses on two main characters, the father Keller Dover looking for his daughter played outstandingly by Hugh Jackman and Loki, the detective for the police leading the search for the two girls, played again, outstandingly by Jake Gyllenhaal. The narrative switches focus from these two characters, whom often meet up and lock horns. This really pushes the pace of the film and adds two fantastically driven perspectives of the same kidnapping.
Beyond the initial scene-setting, we are dropped straight into the action, with the major potential kidnapper shown within the opening twenty minutes of the film – a creepy looking younger man with mental issues named Alex played brilliantly by Paul Dano. Alex proves very pivotal through the course of the film, as early on, he is released from questioning; something Keller is not pleased about. Keller confronts Alex the day he is released who says ‘they only cried when I left them’, this makes Keller convinced that Alex at least knows where the girls are. The film then becomes an interesting tale of two differing approaches to finding the daughter, Keller proceeds by trying to get information out of Alex by way of torture while detective Loki proceeds with general detective work.
The torture scenes work on so many levels and really drive the narrative. These scenes are shot in such a way that everything becomes close and very claustrophobic, adding immensely to the brutal nature of these scenes. Hugh Jackman exerts such a brute physicality in these scenes that they actually become horrifying; he is that good in this film. Gyllenhaal’s detective is none the wiser about the goings on of this torture, carrying on questioning different suspects. It’s a very clever narrative dynamic that really lets you understand the differing power dynamics found in the two characters – and lets us understand the drastic and desperate situation they are in. However, because we as viewers do not know whether Alex has actually kidnapped the little girls and are shown that he has a mental illness wherein he is unable to converse naturally, when he is tortured it becomes something nasty and morally wrong – we are provided with a moral guidance of sorts in the father of the other girl – this film is nasty, brutal and at times too realistic.
In fact, realism is what this film wears on its sleeves. It’s not the campy “realism” of classical Hollywood on display here, it feels realistic, unnerving and brutally honest – helped by the morally ambiguous father who just wants his little girl back and takes the law into his own hands in potentially evil ways.
The rest of the cast is strong, but Prisoners is Hugh Jackman’s film. Honestly I cannot write enough praise about his acting in this film, it was breathtakingly violent in parts, desperate at times and touching in others. He really does deserve all the praise he can get from this film, which is bad news for Jake Gyllenhall who, while brilliant, was not quite as good as Jackman. But for both key actors this is the finest work they have been in, thanks largely to them for their mesmerizing performances.
As a thriller, this film works, we want to know what has happened to the two girls and find out who kidnapped them. It’s not the most edge of the seat mystery ever created, as for the majority of the film we are meant to side and sympathise with Keller, but if you watch the film, pay more attention to the detective Loki’s story. It’s more interesting and leads you to question the morality of Keller as what he does is unthinkable. Ultimately however, the film comes off as slightly confusing as it leads down many paths and through many different suspects in a completely ambiguous nature.
The tail-end of the film however, does falter. We are introduced to more complex characters as the tale unwinds and more complex motives behind the potential kidnapping. While this opens the plot up more to different suspects, a couple of the ideas presented here never fully materialise and ultimately come off as pointless and lead to the film’s only major problem. It is stuck somewhere between how clever the creators think it is and how clever it ends up, if the film kept itself simpler and never introduced a couple of the plot devices that it did then the ending would have been a smoother ride and the film would not have needed the length it is – well over two hours.
Ultimately though, as these few aspects never materialise they are deemed pointless and add nothing to the film, so one could argue that they don’t ruin it at all, they just do not add anything to the narrative. This however created somewhat of an ambiguous ending that does not quite manage to tie everything up as well as you’d hope.
Prisoners is a fantastically driven film that does not pull any punches when it comes to brutality pulled off in a fashion previously unseen of Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It’s brutally ambiguous nature however may come as a put-off for some and writing does lose a little focus towards the end of the film, leading ultimately a slightly disappointing conclusion.
Not quite the amazingly clever masterpiece it thinks it is, Prisoners is still a brilliant thriller with two career defining performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.