“Prisoners” could have — and should have — been the next great crime thriller: a dark, complex and unforgettable police procedural in the vein of “Zodiac”, “No Country for Old Men”, “Se7en” and “The Silence of the Lambs”. Instead, it’s a solid-but-unremarkable two-and-a-half hour episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit.
Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello deliver solid performances as Keller and Grace Dover, a middle-class Pennsylvania couple with two children: a teenage son and a seven-year-old daughter. While at Thanksgiving dinner with their friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the Dovers’ daughter and the Birchs’ youngest daughter are abducted. The main suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a soft-spoken and mentally-challenged loner whose grungy RV was parked close to the Dovers’ house.
Jones is arrested shortly after the girls’ disappearance but is released by the police two days later because of insufficient evidence. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the lead investigator on the case, assures Keller that he will find the girls. Keller’s not convinced: shortly after Alex is released by the police, Keller kidnaps Alex and tortures him in his late father’s abandoned apartment. Eventually, the Birches find out what Keller’s doing and are conflicted about whether they should help him or report him. Like last year’s “Zero Dark Thirty”, “Prisoners” raises questions about the effectiveness of torture: Is it wrong to imprison and torture someone if that person knows vital information about a terrorist? Or knows where your missing daughter is?
I’m afraid that I’m making “Prisoners” sound better than it actually is. Yes, the cast is uniformly excellent. Jackman, Howard and Davis all deliver subtle, multi-layered performances. Gyllenhaal delivers arguably the best performance of his career here as Loki. And nobody is better at playing creepy loners than Paul Dano.
But “Prisoners” ultimately promises a lot more than it delivers, and it never fully justifies its exorbitant running time. It’s a shame considering the talent in front of and behind the camera. After its stellar and arresting first half, the film quickly devolves into a repetitive and tedious whodunit. The second half of the film focuses on Detective Loki’s investigation, which introduces several red herrings — characters who could be integral to the story but end up being absolutely worthless — that do nothing more than pad the running time. It also doesn’t help that, if you’re paying attention, you’ll probably find out who the girls’ kidnapper is about forty-five minutes before the characters figure it out. And once that moment happens, you’ll just be waiting for the characters to figure it out so that the film can end and you can go home.