If you like smiling and aren’t criminally demented, Prisoners is a damn rough watch. Stuffed to the gills with child abduction, overmedicated depression and familial implosions, director Denis Villeneuve’s bloated whodunit is a puppy suicide away from the most joyless way to spend well over two hours. This isn’t to say it’s not an A-level thriller so crackerjack that it jacks all of the crackers. It’s just really hard to heap praise on a bleak condemnation of, like, everything, including the Lord Almighty.
A quick note before we get into synopsizing: Bravo to writer Aaron Guzikowski for coming up with the absolutely most catastrophically insane character names this side of a young adult sci-fi novel. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is so unbelievably American that we meet him as he says the Lord’s Prayer while his son shoots a deer. He’s got a basement full of supplies for any emergency and a goatee. Technically, that last one isn’t exclusively American, but “graying goatee” just screams patriotic survivalist for some reason. At Thanksgiving with his wife (Maria Bello) and thei friends, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), Dover’s daughter goes missing along with the Birches’ youngest girl.
The immediate suspect is Alex Jones, and not just because he’s played by Paul Dano, but because he was seen in the area lurking in a beat-up. Tattooed, twitchy supercop Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) brings him in for questioning, but after interviewing him and his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), he decides the kid knows nothing and lets him go. This doesn’t sit well with “vigilante in waiting” Mr. Dover. So he does what any caring dad would do: snatches the mentally challenged Alex, chains him to a radiator and tortures the bejeezus out of him. America!
Briefly, it looks like the underlying theme of Prisoners is going to be some ham-fisted, ill-intended justification for mutilating and psychologically damaging human beings to get information. It doesn’t quite wind up there, but giving any more away ruins some fairly well-constructed twists and turns. What can be said is that nothing Jackman does to Dano is any worse than what he did to anyone who watched all of Les Miserables.
The major problem is Villeneuve’s failure to economically use his time. Slow-playing plot points is fine, but showing scene after scene of people driving to and from places to elongate the separation of question and answer is only irritating. Still, the cast is great, with Gyllenhaal doing some clever and minimal work via awkwardly buttoned shirts and bizarre affectations that bespeak a character never over-defined. And Jackman gives a full-fledged “Gimme Oscar please!” performance that is well-intended if slightly much.
It all comes down to whether or not you have a taste for twisty procedurals laced with sadism and horrifying commentary on humanity’s shortcomings. In other words, whether or not you love Law and Order: SVU. Prisoners is a rock-solid entry in a slightly icky genre.
Rating: Three out of four stars
—This review first appeared in The Reader of Omaha, Neb.