Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (December 10, 2013)
If their kids went missing, most parents believe they’d do anything to get them back. In 2013’s Prisoners, we examine just how far some parents will go to save their offspring.
During a Thanksgiving celebration among two families, young friends Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) and Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) suddenly disappear. This sends their parents into a tizzy, but they can’t locate the children.
Led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the local police come onto the case, and they take a mentally disabled young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) into custody as a possible suspect. However, they can’t find any clear connection between Alex and the disappearance of the children so they release him.
This upsets the parents of the missing girls; in particular, Anna’s volatile father Keller (Hugh Jackman) goes ballistic. He feels certain that Alex knows where to find the kids and becomes determined to get the truth out of him by any means necessary.
When I saw Prisoners theatrically, I left it with a negative impression. On a forum I frequent, my review simply stated “way too long, way too idiotic, way too predictable. It had potential but didn't work as a whole.”
Now that I’ve seen it a second time – with altered expectations, of course – I can better view the film’s positives, but I still come away from the experience with a negative interpretation. Prisoners could’ve been a good movie but it falters too often.
Without question, Prisoners fares best during its first half. Despite a reliance on religious imagery that seems forced, the film’s opening hour or so manages to draw us in reasonably well. It sets up the characters in a decent manner and creates an intriguing mystery along the way.
So what goes wrong? Refer back to my self-quote for the short version, as it remains true. Prisoners starts to go off the rails right around the time Keller kidnaps Alex. Prior to that event, the movie provides reasonable character movement and an interesting narrative, but once Keller makes his choice, the story takes a notable turn for the worse.
That’s because Prisoners goes from being a fairly good character-based drama to emphasizing inane thriller elements that don’t satisfy. Part of the problem stems from the movie’s overemphasis on Keller and Loki. The other characters head straight to the background, as those two become the focus – and are forced to interact in illogical ways.
Honestly, Prisoners would’ve worked better if it’d concentrated more heavily on the family dynamic. Loki feels like a character who exists to make the movie a serial killer thriller, not because he needs to involve himself in the tale. Of course the flick needs some law enforcement presence, but other than to act as the driver of exposition, Loki doesn’t add much of interest. His presence takes a potentially compelling drama and turns it into standard cop fare.
This ensures that the family members lose screen time and recede to the background. Prisoners wastes the talents of Howard, Davis and Bello, as they have little to do. They occasionally act as minor influences on Keller, but he seems to go his own way and lacks much connection to anyone else – other than Loki, that is, as their dynamic dominates.
If Prisoners concentrated on the family and left the cops aside, it could’ve been good. If Prisoners focused on the investigation and became the Fincher movie it wants to be, it also could’ve succeeded. Unfortunately, its attempts to meld the two sides make it unsatisfying in both directions.