Gyllenhaal helps “Prisoners” escape some of its own traps

“Prisoners” almost gets lost in the maze of its own making. The movie is part ominous psychological thriller and part classic serial killer pulp fiction. The twists and turns show how everyone can become trapped by ideas, circumstances and people to unwittingly become “prisoners” to their own decisions.

Photo via
Photo via

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) always prepares for the worst yet finds himself unable to stop the abduction of his daughter and her friend on Thanksgiving. The family and town frantically search for the girls along with Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the region’s top detective. Alex (Paul Dano), a disturbed man-child, whose RV was parked in the neighborhood, is immediately a suspect but is released when no physical evidence is found. Jackman, who thinks he knows better, doesn’t take this well, to put it gently.

Alex is kidnapped and tortured by Keller making a long stretch of “Prisoners” revolve around the bloody, bruised and broken moon of Dano’s face.

A solid half hour of “Prisoners” is painful to sit through, replete with extended torture scenes. The abduction is cringe worthy, but the preoccupation with torture in the film goes beyond even the controversial scenes in “Zero Dark Thirty.” The torture becomes gratuitous after the Nth close up of Dano’s ruined face courtesy of Jackman’s fists.

Jackman quickly becomes a caricature of the grieving father, willing to do anything to find his lost daughter, an increasingly familiar action trope. Upon looking into the abyss he immediately loses himself and drags along the other missing girl’s parents, well played (and more genuinely grief stricken) by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis.

Gyllenhaal’s character, Detective Loki, gives the film the weight Jackman is missing. We meet the character eating alone in a Chinese diner on Thanksgiving making odd jokes, covered with strange tattoos, and with a facial tick. He immediately fits a film where everyone is a moment away from becoming a monster themselves. Loki’s investigation holds “Prisoners” together as Jackman’s character tries to rip it apart.

Though Mark Wahlberg serves as the film’s executive producer, “Prisoners” is far from the feel-good world of “Ted” or “The Italian Job.” It manages to escape that tried and true blockbuster formula, becoming less of an action-packed thriller and more of an examination of exploitative torture. The film serves as a critique of the mountain of stories that allow for the hero to resort to brutality for justice, like Liem Neeson in “Taken.” Instead, “Prisoners” goes to great lengths to show the beasts men become.

The film itself is beautifully shot with frequent Coen brothers cinematographer, Roger Deakins, creating a tense mood and emphasizing a slew of meaningful symbols, from mazes to deer and crosses. For director Denis Villaneuve, “Prisoners” is his Hollywood debut and first film in English. Fans of this effort can look forward to his next release, also with Gyllenhaal, “Enemy.” With its cast, Villaneuve is probably hoping for Oscar nods this award season, but despite its innovation, the film falls outside the usual fare served at the Academy Awards.

Though “Prisoners” is doubtful as an Oscar contender, the film is dark, gritty and holds more complexity than its surface crime story. By the end, good and evil become ambiguous through the sins of all involved.

3 1/2 Stars