Prisoners is an airplane novel masquerading a Pulitzer Prize winner. The fundamental story, about the kidnapping of two young girls and the two men risking everything to find them, is a lean, mean potboiler with a few unexpected twists and turns. The straightforward mystery plot comes together just fine, but director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) treats the material like a mature exploration of grief, moral compromise and faith tested by extraordinary circumstances, bloating the thin material to an unwieldy 2 1/2 hour-plus running time.
It’s almost enough to ruin Prisoners outright, treating as Villeneuve does every scene of violence and police procedure like it’s never been taken seriously before. But of course it has, and it’s been done better because it’s had a more meaningful point in other, superior films. Prisoners is no Silence of the Lambs, Se7en or Zodiac, because its not really about anything more than the events of its story, and its story of victims turning to violence to combat the “real” criminals is by now very familiar. Prisoners ultimately brings nothing new to the topic except a clever trail of bread crumbs leading to the criminal's real identity. By treating its almost thuddingly straightforward subtext like Oscar bait, the plot suffers, and the audience suffers in kind.
The depressing story finds two children kidnapped, and one of their fathers, played by Hugh Jackman, kidnapping the prime suspect, a man-child played Paul Dano. While Jackman tortures Dano with increasing severity, the detective in charge of the case, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, pursues actual leads rather than ugly hunches, although his legwork soon sidetracks into an investigation of Jackman’s mysterious comings and goings.
The irony of a hero unwittingly turning himself into the red herring of the very mystery he’s trying to solve is a clever device. Prisoners brims with clever devices, and while some of the clues are more obvious than others (pay attention to that necklace!), every detail comes together at the end for an engaging conclusion and a satisfying final second of screen time. Would that the filmmakers could have left well enough alone and simply let that story speak for itself.
Cinematographer Roger Deakins adds a few visual wonders to these proceedings that make Prisoners feel, momentarily at least, more special than it actually is. But the editing lingers so long on the the minutiae of Gyllenhaal’s investigation and the moments of despair within the victims’ families, that it’s difficult to get wrapped up in Prisoners’ real highlight – its well-constructed mystery – because the film is trying so hard to be a morose melodrama at the same time. Hugh Jackman gets to hit things, his wife Maria Bello gets to grieve in bed, and we get it. We really do. We can move on to the actual storyline at any time, but Prisoners makes sure to milk every “For Your Consideration” moment for everything it’s worth instead.
The cast is game though. Jackman is a strong protagonist, and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis make the most of their underexplored supporting roles as the parents of the other kidnapping victim. But baby-faced Jake Gyllenhaal is a little hard to buy as a tough, ingenious detective who has solved every single case he’s ever been assigned, and the film is a little too keen to make sure this particular case is no exception. Gyllenhaal’s character is such a perfect crime-solving machine that he simply feels out of place in the film’s otherwise morbidly realistic universe.
The literally labyrinthine trail of clues practically begs and screams to be pulled taut, forcing the audience to navigate a precarious tightrope of misdirections, anchored by strong performances that convey enough emotional turmoil to keep us invested. But Villeneuve gives the events, his cast, and ultimately the audience so much slack that one can’t help but repeatedly check their watch to see if the final act is finally coming and the film is at last ready to deliver the goods. But if you’re patient, and you have quite a bit of time to kill, you’re bound to see beneath Prisoners’ pretentious façade a nifty little crime thriller that deserved more. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it could have done with a whole lot less.