Viewers will experience a most wild and emotional ride with “Prisoners,” a Warner Bros. Pictures film, directed by Denis Villeneuve, (“Incendies”).
“Prisoners” follows the story of the Dover family, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello), and the Birch family, Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) as they journey through a parents’ worst nightmare: the kidnapping of their children.
Set in a small, blue-collar town in rural Pennsylvania, the film opens with a light and happy scene as the two families celebrate Thanksgiving dinner, with the meat from a deer that Keller Dover and his son hunted together. These families represent the average American family, getting by with what they can. They don’t live in luxury, but they are happy and loving, and they have faith in God and one another.
During the dinner, there is chatting, laughing and joking, but it’s clear something incredibly ominous is about to happen. The families’ two daughters, Joy and Anna, go missing.
Leading the investigation into the children’s disappearance is Detective Loki, (Jake Gyllenhaal) who seems to be a pained, angry and slightly troubled man who is absolutely determined and hell-bent on finding these girls. Loki has never lost a case in his career, but one gets the feeling he is still incredibly dissatisfied with his life nonetheless, drowning in his seemingly troublesome, but unknown, past. Gyllenhaal, while at first seemed like a questionable casting choice, really captures the depth of the character, complete with nervous twitches and angry outbursts. He is an authentic representation of the complex character of Detective Loki.
Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” does a wonderful job portraying the different emotions that parents feel during such a tragedy. Keller Dover is a rugged “survivalist”, a father who always teaches his children to be ready. His protector mentality is heightened when he takes matters into his own hands after he feels Detective Loki isn’t doing enough to find his daughter. Keller is a grief-stricken father who, instead of weeping into a comatose state, like his wife Grace, is pushed to edge and determined to be the hero in his daughter’s nightmare.
Keller’s confrontations with Alex Jones, (Paul Dano) a mentally challenged man who becomes a suspect in the case, are horrifyingly painful to watch. Jones lives with his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo) and mostly keeps to himself. He has the IQ of a 10-year-old and has conflicting characteristics. He radiates an air of evil one minute and boyish innocence the next. You want to be angry with him, but tend to feel sorry for him.
When Jones is released from jail after detectives find no evidence to hold him, Keller, positive that Jones knows where the children are, decides to investigate Jones himself. It is clear from these scenes that Keller is unraveling. He is losing sight of the facts and will do anything to try and save his child. These scenes may be some of the best in Jackman’s career. It’s hard not to weep with him, but at the same time, you want to beg him to stop and think for a moment.
On the contrary, Nancy and Franklin Birch are holding themselves together as best they can. They are tired, broken and hurt, but they trust the police department and feel that they can’t control the investigation. They survive by holding candlelight vigils and finding strength through one another.
It seems the Birch family represents the outward display of emotion we see from parents of missing children during press conferences. Their vigils and prayers illustrate their hope and faith; they are determined to stay strong through the pain.
However, the Dovers represent the internal struggle and extreme agony that every parent must feel in this situation. It’s the agony that we don’t see during such public investigations. It’s the pain and struggle that happens in private, away from the vigils and public media events. Keller is on the verge of a complete breakdown, and the sedated Grace never leaves her bedroom.
Villeneuve does a beautiful job peeling back the layers of human pain. His direction is impeccable and his characters are mysteriously complex.
Catholic symbolism is scattered throughout the film, with themes like penance and prayer, forgiveness and sin. Some characters are angry with God and sin against him purposefully, while others fall to their knees, begging for mercy and grace.
“Prisoners” will leave you with your heart racing and palms sweating. Every scene is momentous and every encounter is emotional. The film is supremely intense and hard to watch, but is incredibly powerful and thought provoking.