This review contains spoilers for the film.
Prisoners is an angry film, expressed in angry exposition. Keller Dover, whose name rolls away like the ridge of a shining lake in a fairytale, is a creature of angry conscience. He wishes not to endure the best parts of himself in a world that doesn’t acknowledge them; the film obliges by making them small and ineffective. He seems to believe that if he could hurt with impunity, he could recover what he’s lost. His vengeful eyes are more compelling than the story’s explanation for them. By the end, the script has ground him down to the level of a weary protagonist in a daytime television mystery, one where the old lighthouse keeper holds him at gunpoint to explain not only the plot and the themes that the audience should get from it but even the arc that he experienced to demonstrate them. She stops just short of reminding him that she’d have gotten away with it too, if it wasn’t for his meddling anger. “Making children disappear is the war we wage with god,” she says in even, cleanly thematic sentences, “Makes people lose their faith. Turns them into demons like you.” Despite over two hours of aggressive mystique, the screenplay’s final scenario is as eye-rolling as the villainous monologues in spy parodies and as processed as a lecture to a room of reverent notetakers.
Huge Jackedman lives up to his name in this film, someone who kills deer for meat, thrives in flannels and skin-lined coats and delivers thematically relevant character dialogue like a grizzly bear chewing a shot glass. On the poster of Prisoners, he has a saintly aura; his beard glows with holy grooming, like the artist believed he was Andrei Rublev. The film draws divine connections, giving him a mother named Mary, a wife named Grace, and the life of a lonely carpenter. Yet, he never assumes that appearance of holiness. He never stops grimacing long enough to become deep. He recites the lord’s prayer to ward off his fear of a scary world, but he remains the scariest thing in it – even his vulnerability is rageful, not spiritual.
The lord doesn’t help him when someone kidnaps his daughter, a setup that begs to be explored in the context of moral absolutes through characters who live as shades of grey in a society that blurs the line between violent means and necessary ends. Prisoners offers us Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who plays the part with repressed athleticism, like a deer who dreamed of being a thug and won’t admit he likes it. The best scenes, involving a chase through a nighttime memorial and a stressful drive in the rain, effectively connect the aesthetic and drama since Gyllenhaal can carry both, though the chaotic connotation of the Norse allusion never materializes. Then there’s the intently frail Paul Dano, who bears himself at the film as Alex, a blubbering creep whom Dover rightly believes is aware of his daughter’s location, a prototype for his role in The Batman.
Yet if all three are praised for dynamic intentions, none live up to the estimation of seeing them on-screen together. Some publications now call Prisoners “the most underrated thriller of all time,” which is a title that slips through its fingers since nothing so widely praised as underrated could be truly underrated. The plot and performances of The Vanishing (1988), even some identical shots, or the simmering anxiousness of Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Cure contrast directly with their imprecisely forced corollaries in Prisoners. The screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski looked at these cinematic standards and saw a jammed door – all he could think to write was a crowbar.
Guzikowski writes within the contradiction that characters who believe in moral ambiguity are strengthened by processing, stating, and restating how ambiguous they are. This is never clearer than in the film’s final situation, where the villain has been recruited into justifying ambiguity through thematically explicit exposition. Even the ending of the film, copied yet neutered from The Vanishing, fizzles out since the next steps after the credits roll would be mundanely certain, defined by clear legal procedures. It’s a fake-out postured like a gut punch. It has none of the stomach-sinking finality of its inspirations, which sacrificed none of their concrete realizations for the impression of significance that movies of this type need to be taken seriously.
In the pursuit of getting by on sacrifices alone, Prisoners exchanges powerful moments for elongating ones. Loki has an eye-rolling “Are you sure you’re not just tired, ma’am?” scene where he writes off the testimony of someone clearly giving him vital information for no reason but to prolong an underwritten mystery until it can be mistaken for a complex thriller (a woman tells him in vain that she suspects an intruder was in her house, as though this isn’t exactly what Loki is trying to find out from her). His mistake would be clear to the viewer even without the previous scene, where the omnipotent audience is shown that trespasser with its own eyes, ensuring that the subsequent investigation is even more tedious. The film forces the characters to gradually catch up with the audience’s knowledge, making its protagonists look slow-witted not only since they “should” know more but also because the audience knows too much. The whole time, we’re on the back of our seats.
The high-minded intention to present a moral question about violence leaves crucial scenes on the table, such as the one where Loki presumably discovers Alex, crippled through abuse by Dover’s interrogation tactics. This moment where he realizes that his objectivity has failed him and the world is beyond his power as he pulls Alex’s broken body from the DIY torture chamber happens off-screen – we just hear about it. For a film devoted to searing truth-saying, it misses vital opportunities for grandeur. It prefers using illusions of meaning to prop up an open-and-shut case than to deepen the case itself. Loki is intrigued by symbols of mazes and demonology yet uses nothing to solve the case but the “revelation” of his rival. He regurgitates his childhood story to a stranger, and this passes as motivation. Dover holds everything in, and this passes as truth.
When thrown together, they have none of the chemistry of any great cinematic rivals, though each performance has its own contained charm. In one scene, Dover lumbers into the police car, furrowed like a bear half in the bag, while Loki dodges his verbal attacks like a cautious parole officer. “You’re the shit-hot detective,” Jackman snarls, “you figure it out” (might be a Boston ism for “hot shit”). Their conversation has gravity equal to their combined body weight, but it has no intellectual substance. The moral rivalry in The Vanishing, perhaps the aspect of that film that Prisoners most studied, is an imperative in comparison.
No single element drags Prisoners below the better work of its creator, the shit-hot French Canadian genre master Denis Villeneuve, but when all of Prisoners’ half-measures are combined, the result is a dead-end mystery that can make no point without advocating it in clenching platitudes like a desperate substitute teacher reviewing lessons they didn’t write. From the man who was able to find so much meaning in a mother’s struggle in films like Incendies, the underseen Maelström, and Arrival, this miss implies that the absence of the mythic mother figure leaves him stranded. In Prisoners, he seems to struggle with characters about which he understands nothing, except perhaps that he doesn’t respect them. “My movies are very often violent and dark,” he said once, “but there’s a spectrum of light, and that light is coming from the women.” In their absence, here interpreted as an absence of all hope and reason, no motivations can be justified, making any moral conclusions foregone save for the explanations. With the mom stranded in bed and the cavemen husbands struggling against their instincts to do anything useful, an hour of purpose pales in comparison to 153 minutes of self-reproach.
This intellectual feet-dragging of Prisoners is clearest when comparing its sticky thesis statements to Villeneuve’s normally effective revelation scenes. Consider the scene in Prisoners when the predictable villain (the first you would have suspected if Dover and Loki were Shaggy and Scooby) holds the protagonist at gunpoint and reads Guzikowski’s script notes to him. It has all the tact of a scene from a show that needs to wrap up quickly the best way it knows how – to plead with the audience to accept any explanation as revelatory, no matter how coerced. Compare that to the ultimate stomach twist in Incendies, the “one plus one” scene. That’s how a screenwriter turns the war on the terror of the soul into a single line and burns it into an audience’s brain forever. One line. That’s how long it takes for Incendies to wreck hearts. In comparison, Prisoners is a brute. If it was a person, it would knock down walls rather than look for the door.
The fear of powerlessness that turns the faithful Dover into a torturer seems warranted by a scary world, one in which his victim is aware of his daughter’s fate, if not culpable in it. Whatever the film intends to say by the fact that Alex enables her torture is obscured by key moments missing from the blueprint, where transitions needed clearer dramatic context and less expository fluff to draw out whatever subtext was intended. The film is a building plan of dark rooms lit by Roger Deakins’ realistic closeness and populated by characters that never quite see each other. Deakins has a way of giving light a form of character that accentuates a film’s traits. In Prisoners, the light reveals lost faces. It must be empathy then, that forced Guzikowski to puppeteer them to tell each other exactly where they all are, in every moment that was in danger of being compelling. In his head, it must have been a searing condemnation of the constructs of morality that define our shadowy world. When spoken, it amounts to the longest empty threat in recent cinema.
Image is a screenshot from the film: ©Warner Bros. Pictures/Alcon Entertainment