In recent years the horror genre has shifted from the torture porn films of franchises such as Saw and Hostel, to more traditional ghost story hauntings such as Paranormal Activity and The Conjuring. Like a good horror villain, however, you apparently can’t kill torture porn and it has moved over to roost in the thriller genre with Prisoners.
Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is the bleak, dark story of Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) whose daughter is abducted one Thanksgiving. He does have a wife and another couple loses their daughter in the same abduction, but these three characters are only in the movie long enough to make plot points and then conveniently disappear for contrived reasons. That’s a shame, since quality actors Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard are given the parts. The only other notable character given some time is a police detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Loki is one of those film characters that seem to exist in a universe alone. He’s a cop, but he rarely speaks or interacts with other cops except for his police chief, who seems only there to bark orders and impede his investigation. Yes, he’s that 80s buddy-cop cliché. You may be getting a sense for this film.
But to write this film off as simply trite is unfair. Villeneuve directs with a keen eye. This is a washed-out, dirty looking film, but the cinematography is tight and claustrophobic. Meanwhile, Jackman and Gyllenhaal appear to be attempting to one-up one another in rage scenes that involve shattering bathrooms and computer keyboards. They’re both very good with what little they have to work with here, but Gyllenhaal is given the most room to shine. The film also tries valiantly to lay down overlapping layers of theme and symbolism.
Unfortunately, those layers are part of the film’s undoing. The film begins with Keller deer hunting with his son (never mind that the son character basically disappears after the first twenty minutes of the film). A truck ride home gives Keller time to espouse to his son the virtues of being able to hunt for and protect your own. We then learn his favorite song is The Star Spangled Banner and he loves Bruce Springsteen. Did I also mention he’s a devout Christian who hangs a cross from his rearview mirror and intermittently prays throughout the film?
So he’s the all-American male, who will eventually kidnap a suspect and torture him to near-death. Why? Because this is what any American father would do? Not Terrence Howard’s character, who initially helps but quickly bows out. Because he has so far been depicted as a right-winger and, as we know, they’re all nuts? Or is easily misled into believing torture is a reliable way to extract information? Which he actually manages to do here? I’m not sure. His character feels cartoonish rather than complex. Howard, in his brief glimpses, is the more interesting of the two. This is to say nothing of the at-times heavy-handed religious imagery (crosses, snakes, songs, talk of demons, etc.) that comes and goes throughout the film.
Prisoners is a carefully scaffolded thriller that eventually collapses beneath its own layered weight. The final act is ludicrous and drags on far too long. I found myself enjoying the first thirty or so minutes of the film when I felt it was still headed somewhere, but by the end I was more chuckling at how hard it was trying to make that buildup payoff. There are much better films that tackle similar thematic territory—such as Ingmar Bergman’s The Virgin Spring, David Fincher’s Zodiac, and Bill Paxton’s Frailty. Go watch them instead.