by Michael Walters
The Cantankerous Critic
“Prisoners” sneaks some smart surprises into what, on the surface, appears to be a standard issue studio revenge thriller. We’ve all seen the story of a father fighting against the odds and willing to stop at nothing to save his family, but “Prisoners” doesn’t settle for that easy simplistic storyline.
Instead, Hugh Jackman is a father willing to do anything to find his kidnapped daughter, but slowly loses his soul in the process.
The film begins eerily enough with Jackman’s working-class family going over to a well-to-do neighbor’s for Thanksgiving, but amid the food comas and football after the meal, they each notice their youngest daughters have gone missing. They soon learn about a creepy RV in the neighborhood, and put police on the case.
Jake Gyllenhaal is a typical lone-wolf detective assigned to track them down. He’s got his tattoos, and his own devotion to his job. He finds the RV with a mental simpleton (Paul Dano dressed like he went to Sex Offenders-R-Us) at a rest stop. Jackman is convinced Dano is responsible, but police can’t find any evidence to link Dano or the RV to the case.
Jackman keeps urging Gyllenhaal to bend the law, while the detective keeps trying to keep Jackman’s loose cannon from going off half-cocked. Jackman crams in enough screaming, shouting, and growling for another Wolverine movie, but he’s less of a hero here and more of a dangerous and reckless vigilante who’s in very real danger of becoming the very thing he’s railing against.
Gyllenhaal gives an obsessively mannered and twitchy performance, but utilitizes the quiet intensity he brought to such fine effect in “Zodiac” again here. Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, and especially Viola Davis all shine as the mothers who each react to the situation in their own vastly different ways.
The plot takes plenty of twists and turns, and throws in a few red herrings the audience can probably spot a mile away.
The movie is probably about a half hour too long, but I expected a simplistic revenge thriller and got instead a morally conflicted drama, full of a couple rich characters and unexpected depth.