“No!” I whispered to my husband as the first scene of Prisoners slowly unfolded on screen. Because it gave me such an uneasy feeling, I wanted to leave. But would an avid Hugh Jackman fan like me ever walk out on one of his films? After all, I even suffered through Van Helsing to the very end. Little did I know that Jackman’s latest film would move me from “uneasy” to “appalled” by the brutality in some sequences, which I believe verged on torture porn. Still, this thriller includes remarkable performances by Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It also draws us into a compelling story about two missing girls and the people trying to find them, thanks in large part to the absorbing cinematography of Roger Deakins (True Grit).
When two darling little girls (Kyla Drew Simmons and Erin Gerasimorich) go missing after the families have celebrated Thanksgiving together, one of the fathers (Jackman) begins to distrust the detective (Gyllenhaal) investigating the case. Filled with anger and despair, he kidnaps the mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano from There Will Be Blood) originally suspected of the crime. Convinced of this person’s guilt, the grieving father subjects him to brutal treatment in an effort to find out the location of the missing youngsters. He even involves the other father (Terrence Howard from Crash) -- who seems reluctant at first -- in his plan. The detective then has two major problems: solving the case and dealing with fathers who want to take the law into their own hands.
Gyllenhaal (Zodiac) simply couldn’t be better as the concerned detective who becomes more and more frustrated dealing with the crime itself and the people involved. He really doesn’t need much dialogue, for we can almost see him thinking and feeling his way through the obstacles his character faces. This role could -- and should -- earn him an Oscar nomination. I never thought any actor could steal a movie from Jackman (The Wolverine), but Gyllenhaal does just that, perhaps because he's playing a more sympathetic part here.
Ordinarily we would be cheering for the father in a situation like this. Yet even Jackman himself realizes how hard cheering for him would be while watching Prisoners. For example, during an interview with Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show,” he mentioned the negative reaction his own wife felt toward him during the screening. There’s no doubt about how convincing Jackman’s emotionally-charged performance comes across. An Oscar nomination for him would not surprise me either.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) from a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Prisoners can’t be faulted for lack of suspenseful moments. However, some of these moments don’t make much sense. (I’m still scratching my head about the snakes.) Other problems involve the small amount of camera time for Viola Davis (The Help) and Maria Bello (A History of Violence), who play the missing children’s mothers. Plus, Melissa Leo’s (The Fighter) character has a key role in the investigation but appears in only a couple of scenes. These three wonderful actresses deserve better than this.
And what about that strange ending? Well, although it may leave some viewers cold, I think it’s a clever way to make us keep talking about this thriller for a long time to come.
(Released by Warner Bros. and rated “R” for disturbing violent content including torture and language throughout.)
To find out more about Prisoners, go to the Internet Movie Data Base or Rotten Tomatoes website.