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Thursday, Sept. 26, 2013 12:15 pm

Prisoners loses its nerve when it matters most

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Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover and Paul Dano as Alex Jones in Prisoners.
PHOTO COURTESY WARNER BROS. PICTURES’

Director Denis Villeneuve sets out to examine many substantial themes in his gripping thriller Prisoners, chief among them the burden of guilt and the quest for redemption. These are heady issues for a Hollywood production and during the first two hours of the movie, the filmmaker takes an unflinching approach toward the lofty narrative goals he’s set for himself. Too bad he abandons them during the final act, wasting an opportunity to deliver a powerful moral lesson opting instead for a muted conclusion.

The film begins with a gut-wrenching portrayal of every parent’s worst nightmare. While celebrating Thanksgiving together, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) find their young daughters have gone missing. Out for a short walk, they have seemingly vanished in thin air, though the Dover’s oldest son (Dylan Minnette) provides a clue as he remembers seeing a suspicious looking mobile home parked down the street earlier. The frantic parents grasp a bit too tightly at this straw, call the police with this information and soon Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case. Sure enough, he and his colleagues track down the vehicle and arrest its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a young man who has a very low IQ and the demeanor of a child. Not enough evidence is found to charge the young man, yet that doesn’t stop Keller from dogging his every step after he’s been released, ultimately kidnapping him in order to conduct his own interrogation.

From here, the film consists of two parallel plotlines as Loki continues to search for the girls, and in the process turns up clues that excuse Jones as the abductor, while Keller resorts to increasingly violent methods to get his captive to confess to a crime we know he didn’t commit. The movie is manipulative to its core, however, this morality play kicks into high gear once Keller puts the screws on Jones and we begin to question the father’s methods if not his motivation.

There’s more at play here than a simple revenge tale as the film does a fine job of delving into what motivates the two men at its core. Keller, played full out by Jackman, is a survivalist who sees his role as the protector of his family. Once these events undermine this, the man lets anger and fear dictate his actions, his logic reduced to a piece of collateral damage. Loki on the other hand, is a man haunted by a past that goes unexplained. His pseudo-religious tattoos coupled with those that might speak of a criminal history suggest a man that’s in constant battle over the state of his soul. Gyllenhaal, in a brilliant simmering performance, conveys this with a coiled performance that communicates this man’s repressed anger and doubt in a powerful, moving manner.

There are many grand themes at play here, many of them rooted in Christian beliefs. Each of the men are burdened with original sin as well as moral lapses of their own and as they all struggle toward forgiving themselves their trespasses, they find that true redemption is always tantalizingly out of reach. One of the film’s major faults is that it fails to fully explore the characters of Grace and Nancy. All of the women are reduced to being seen as either victims or much worse.

Without question, Prisoners works as an effective thriller. The mystery is an engaging one, the clues are uncovered logically and the motivation for the crimes holds water. However, where the movie ultimately fails is in its final shot. Instead of adhering to the thematic notion that’s been so firmly established, Villeneuve provides the audience with a tiny ray of hope that comes off as cheap and pandering. Had the filmmaker stuck to his convictions, Prisoners would have been a modern masterpiece instead of just a fine thriller that loses its nerve when it matters most.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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