Screened Out: Prisoners

By : Stephen Miller
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Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo

On average, audiences pay nine bucks just for a ticket to a flick. No matter how good some aspects are, I cannot imagine the average moviegoer being overjoyed with something this long, this labyrinthine, this tortured.

I also cannot, in good conscience, call Prisoners a bad film – just a painful, troubling one, with some small flaws.

Prisoners means to attract the same audiences that love Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone – call them Massachusetts Missing Child Thrillers. On second thought, maybe “love” is too strong a term, because I assume most audiences probably don’t clamor to watch them repeatedly. We appreciate the acting. We squirm at the tragedy and tension. We hope for release, redemption.

Jackman, Bello, Howard, and Davis are neighbors and good friends whose daughters go missing one rainy Thanksgiving. Jackman is a survivalist and a religious man, and he immediately switches into soldier mode to find his little girl. Gyllenhaal is the twitchy but determined detective assigned to the case; he’s never left one unsolved. A mentally handicapped adult (Dano) is suspected on flimsy evidence. While Gyllenhaal searches for more solid clues, Jackman kidnaps Dano and locks him up in an abandoned building, trying to glean answers with some Guantanamo-style torture.

Already, the logical cracks are showing. Then, the film throws in questions of Catholic faith, missing child cases from the 1970s, Satan worshipers, deranged people, and random clues from a helpful sales clerk.

Did I mention that it’s two and a half hours long?

Viola Davis, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Terrence Howard bring performance gravitas to Prisoners.

Viola Davis, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Terrence Howard bring performance gravitas to Prisoners.

You can tell it’s going to be a grim ride at the very beginning, when even the Warner Brothers and Alcon logos are rendered in rigor mortis grey.

Yet, the actors are mostly phenomenal, even when the scene is hard to get through. We can see Jackman is a man driven to madness to find his child. We understand the complicity of the other parents. Dano finds a way of playing a mentally incapacitated adult without embarrassing himself. Leo’s part is just weird; she barely gets through it, and her makeup is horrible.

Ratings Key

See it now! Buy the DVD! Quote lines at parties!

Definitely worth the price of admission

It’s useful as a distraction

Maybe if someone else pays and you need a nap

Slightly worse than eternal damnation

Perhaps the most difficult job is Gyllenhaal’s – with his tattoos, his small paroxysms and personal procedure. Saddled with an unformed backstory, it’s up to the actor to fill us in merely with his performance, and Gyllenhaal commits.

French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve always has a bit of mystery and mood in his films (Maelstrom, Incendies). He attempts to do as much here, in an artistic arena usually occupied by Dennis Lehane, Ben Affleck, and other Bostonians. The problem is that allowing for titillating omissions makes us wonder if any logical police procedure is ever followed, if suspects are ever trailed, and if important clues are purposely ignored.

Prisoners aims to combine the Massachusetts Missing Child Thriller with the vigilante flick. Movie PR people are acting like this is new, but Mystic River really did it first. Prisoners is a masterful but slightly messy imitation.

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