On Thanksgiving Day, two families are thrust into a nightmare with the disappearance of two six-year old girls. Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla-Drew Simmons) vanish while walking in their neighborhood between their homes. Keller and Gracie Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello), and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) search their homes and the neighborhood but cannot find the girls. Anna’s teenage brother Ralph (Dylan Minnette) remembers on an earlier walk around the neighborhood, the girls were playing around and climbing on a beat up RV. The police are called and the case falls to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). From Ralph’s description, the RV is found in the parking log of a truck stop. As officers approach, the RV starts up and appears to try to escape but it slams head-on into a tree. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is taken into custody and questioned while his RV is examined for trace evidence. Alex swears he didn’t take the girls and the RV has no evidence the girls were inside. Without charges, Alex can only be held for 48 hours. Alex is released into the custody of his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) who has raised him since his parents died when he was six. In the police department parking lot, Keller attacks Alex and demands to know where the girls are. During the struggle, Alex says something about the girls only crying when he left them. The police detain Keller briefly after the struggle. He tells them about what Alex said but since no one else heard it, they let it drop. Furious, Keller decides to watch Alex on his own. Seeing Alex abuse his aunt’s dog while walking him, Keller is even more convinced he had taken the girls. Keller kidnaps Alex at gunpoint and takes him to an abandoned apartment house he inherited after his father died. Keller ties up Alex in the bathroom of one of the apartments. He picks up Franklin at his house and takes him to the apartment. Franklin is horrified when he sees what Keller has done and even more horrified when Keller explains he plans on beating the girl’s location out of Alex. Meanwhile, Det. Loki is continuing the investigation with a new suspect: A man who behaved oddly at a candlelight vigil for the girls then ran away when Loki approached him.
After watching “Prisoners” you’ll be tired; but it’s a good tired because the film is a quality workout. The movie works you over with drama, tension, misdirection, blatant but invisible clues in plain sight, horror, twists and raw, gut-wrenching emotion. Parents of young children will probably want to avoid this movie but shouldn’t; however, they may want to invest in a security camera system they can watch on their smartphones before they head to the theatre…just to be safe. You’ll never look at your next door neighbors the same way again as the child-snatching monsters in “Prisoners” are as innocuous as that sweet little old retired couple you see at church every Sunday or the nameless clerk at the grocery store.
“Prisoners” rides on the back of Hugh Jackman. If we don’t find him sympathetic and support his decisions, no matter how repulsive we might normally consider them, the movie falls apart. We do support Jackman and internally want him to hit Alex harder and harder to get the truth out of him. Jackman must have been exhausted after filming this movie as he has to constantly be on the edge of emotional breakdown. Jackman’s performance shines the most when he faces the horror of his actions when compared with the rest of his life and the lessons he tries to teach his kids. We see Keller change with time as he faces both the possible loss of his daughter and the disintegration of his family. The dual pressures drive an otherwise decent man to do unspeakable things. He does wrong for the right reason and we support him because Jackman plays such a convincing “every man.” The other main character is Jake Gyllenhaal’s Det. Loki. Gyllenhaal plays the detective as tired and just going through the motions. He considers dealing with the demands of Mr. Dover more of an annoyance because he’s seen it all more than once and he’s tired of it. It’s only as the case goes on and more information is uncovered that he becomes invested in the people and the outcome. Gyllenhaal is excellent in the role, bringing a weariness and fatigue to the character that makes him more than just a generic movie cop. Paul Dano is an odd looking young man to begin with but his portrayal of Alex Jones reaches a whole new level of creepy. Alex is quiet and always seems to have his hands balled up into fists. When he does speak it’s often in a sing-song voice that is soft and often unintelligible. He dislikes being touched which makes the beating he’s subjected to by Keller that much more cruel. Dano’s character is so strange the audience assumes he must be the one responsible for the girls’ disappearance. He is both a repulsive and tragic character and the audience’s opinion of him will change throughout the movie.
Perhaps the best performance is one I can’t talk about as it will give away too much about the story. What I will say is I wouldn’t be surprised if this performer received an Academy Award nomination for their work. It is subtle, stunning and will make your jaw drop as their true nature is revealed. This performance is worth the price of admission by itself.
“Prisoners” is rated R for language throughout, disturbing violent content and torture. There are a couple of shootings with graphic blood splatter. The beating of Alex by Keller is bloody and the makeup used to show us the aftermath caused the audience I was with the gasp when his face is shown. There is a type of torture that is carried out in an enclosed shower stall. We do not see what’s happening but the screams are enough to let us know how horrible it must be. Foul language is common.
While the performances and overall tone of the film is nearly flawless, there are a few logic errors and more than a few coincidences that seemed far too convenient. Despite these minor quibbles, “Prisoners” is a nerve-wracking kidnap drama with enough twists and turns to require a visit to the chiropractor. If the summer of superheroes, car chases and animation left you wishing for movies with a more grown-up story and believable characters, “Prisoners” is just the film you’re looking for.
“Prisoners” gets five guitars out of five.
There’s a full slate of new movies headed to a multiplex near you. Vote for the next film I see and review.
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Short Term 12—A supervisor at a facility for at-risk teenagers loves her job and her long-term boyfriend who is also a co-worker; but her troubled past, a surprising and approaching future and a new resident at the facility have her questioning everything.
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Stan's Choice--Stan sees and reviews any film of his choice in theatres or On Demand.
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