It’s rare for a movie that runs for over two hours to stay thrilling for its entirety. It’s rarer still for a film to make you feel something for its characters — especially when you aren’t completely aware of if they’re good or bad — during such a sustained amount of tension. And it’s almost unheard of for you to keep thinking about a film for hours or days after it ends. Such is the case with Prisoners, a fantastic film and one of the year’s best.
The film begins innocently enough. One family, the Dovers, is going over to the Birch’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. The two families are close, we find out, and this is how they choose to celebrate the holiday. Each family consists of a mother, father, teenager and daughter under the age of six. After dinner, each group separates: adults spend time chatting with other adults, the teenagers head to the basement to watch television, and the daughters head back to the Birch residence in hopes of finding one of their whistles. Fast forward to later on, and the daughters are nowhere to be found. Now what?
They search. They look everywhere. No dice. There was an RV earlier, which was driven by the mentally deficient Alex (Paul Dano). He becomes the prime suspect. A Detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) starts up an investigation. The families are devastated. The rest of Prisoners takes place primarily over the next week. They say after a week, the chance of finding a child alive is halved. After a month, it’s almost nonexistent. Time is certainly of monumental importance.
You know all this from the trailer. Prisoners had a trailer released months before its theatrical release, as should happen, and it appeared to give away the majority of the plot. I hated the trailer for Prisoners. A movie like this one needs mysteries hidden. Fret not, dear reader, as the trailer stops about 1/3 of the way into the film, and reveals nothing too significant. Of greater importance is that it doesn’t rob the film of a few dramatic and tension-filled scenes, even though they’re shown in part during the trailer.
Prisoners is a film that keeps you on your toes. It isn’t in the least bit predictable, and even once you think it has played all of its cards, it pulls out another five. Even as the film rolls its credits, you won’t be entirely sure of everything you saw. You’ll want to watch it again right away to make sure you caught everything, and to make sure it didn’t cheat. Guess what? I’d put money on it being too smart to resort to cheating. You can figure it out earlier than it reveals itself, but you likely won’t be able to. This is how you make a thriller.
A small example comes in the form of the Detective, Loki. We’ve seen Jake Gyllenhaal at the investigating end of a crime before in Zodiac (also a lengthy thriller), but he’s improved so much as an actor since then. Even though the film never tries to implicate him, simply by the name of the character and a small tic which Gyllenhaal adds to the role, we can never be sure that Loki wasn’t the mastermind behind the kidnapping. Small but superbly effective techniques.
It also has the rare trait to make you care about everyone involved, regardless of what they’ve done over the course of the film and whether or not the film is trying to make us lean one way or another in regard to their innocence. Take Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the father of one of the children, who winds up torturing a kid for an extremely large portion of the film, but because we understand his motivation and his intentions, he becomes one of the more sympathetic characters.
Prisoners has the ability to haunt. Because of its questionable morals, you’ll be thinking about its characters for days after it ends. Would you make similar decisions if faced with their situation? You’ll also be attempting to put each piece of the puzzle into place, and thinking back to early moments in the film which might or might not be clues. Seemingly inconsequential things in sharp, smart thrillers like this one are rarely as pointless as you initially think, and you slap yourself once the film tells you that they mattered. You could have figured that out.
The cast assembled for this production is outstanding. While it’s Jackman and Gyllenhaal who get more central roles — and Jackman gives the most intense performance of his career while Gyllenhaal plays his Zodiac character with even more confidence and depth — Viola Davis and Terrence Howard show up as the neighbors, Maria Bello plays the wife of Jackman’s character, and Melissa Leo plays the aunt of Paul Dano’s suspect character. These are all great actors and they turn in great work.
Prisoners is a fantastic film. It runs for just over 150 minutes but doesn’t drag for even a single moment, it has a complex plot which will keep you guessing for the vast majority of its running time — and it doesn’t cheat in that attempt to bewilder — it contains fantastic performances, great scenes which will rile you up emotionally, and the ability to make you think about it for days after it ends. It is one of the best films of the year.