starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano
written by Aaron Guzikowski
directed by Denis Villeneuve
Executive produced by Mark Wahlberg, Prisoners, with an ensemble cast, is a tense, exciting suspense about two Pennsylvania girl neighbors who are abducted at Thanksgiving almost from under their parents’ noses. It takes a while for the families to realize that the girls are missing. They didn’t return after going to the other’s house down the street to get something. The experience that all of us have from child abductions in the news is that the girls are victims of a psychotic pedophile. We expect they were raped, tortured, murdered, and their bodies dumped somewhere not to be found for months or years. The police and the families embark on a frantic search with just this scenario in mind.
But the girls were not raped and murdered. The story is weirder than that. They are kept as drugged prisoners by the last person you expected, for demented reasons. There are suspenseful twists all through it that kept me glued to the screen even after I decided the unfolding tale was taking far too long. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly arrests Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the driver of a suspicious van. But Alex has the IQ of a ten year old. He could be the killer but because of his disability nothing he says or does is credible and lacking evidence the police have to release him. But Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), father of one of the missing girls, doesn’t believe it and proceeds to kidnap Alex, sequester him in an abandoned building and then tortures him relentlessly to learn the whereabouts of his daughter. Meanwhile the case proceeds in other directions and while Mr. Dover is busy torturing, Detective Loki is busy tracing leads that at first appear unrelated, but then start to come together. Mr. Dover’s action is more an impediment than a real solution to the case, so the title “Prisoners” assumes a different shade. The girls, wherever they are, are prisoners of their captor; Mr. Dover is keeping the original suspect prisoner; the parents are prisoners of their grief, etc.
Keller Dover’s torture of Alex Jones is disturbingly, graphically violent. But I take it as a real dramatization of a parent’s anger, helplessness, motivation, et. al. It’s a powerful performance.
Alex Jones is not the kidnapper. It turns out that the woman he lives with, whom everyone thinks is his aunt, is not his aunt at all. She, and her late husband before the film’s tale began, is the real perpetrator. Over many years she and her husband had been kidnapping children as part of a “war on God,” sparked by their anger towards God after the death of their own natural son. But arriving at this knowledge using routine police investigation procedures is excruciatingly slow.