What would you do if your young child disappeared and the police released the lead suspect due to lack of evidence? Would you simply be despondent and pray for your child’s return, or would you take matters into your own hands and try to force answers out of the man you believe has your child’s life hanging by a thread?
And what if you kidnapped the man and beat him within an inch of his life for answers, only to learn that the police might have been right and the man you’ve just tortured is actually innocent?
This may sound like an over-the-top and unrealistic dilemma, but the new film “Prisoners” faces it head-on with compelling gravity and a series of moral dilemmas that should have audiences on the edge of their seats throughout, before finding themselves engaged in ethical conversations for hours afterward.
Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, a recovered alcoholic turned devoutly Catholic family man, who is also a carpenter struggling for work. When his young daughter and her best friend disappear on Thanksgiving, he loses his bearings and begins a maniacal search for her that escalates into seriously questionable behavior when he kidnaps the lead suspect, a seemingly simple-minded oddball named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), after police release him without charges.
Keller kidnaps Alex and proceeds to torture him with beatings, cramped conditions and scalding and freezing water in a desperate attempt to make him talk quickly enough to save his daughter’s life, but Alex appears to have the mind of a 10-year-old and alternates between silence and occasionally whispering cryptic clues.
Meanwhile, a dogged policeman named Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads the search for the girls and starts to notice that Keller is acting strangely. He doesn’t yet realize that Keller has taken Alex hostage and forced his best friend, a fellow Christian family man named Franklin (Terrence Howard) whose daughter was also kidnapped, to be complicit in the kidnapping and torture.
As time ticks away and days go by, matters escalate to the point that Alex has been beaten to a pulp and Keller doesn’t know how to either force a life-saving answer out of him or how to get out of the terrible ethical and moral mess he has created with his treatment of Alex. Then Detective Loki discovers that a completely different man is likely to be the true suspect in the girls’ kidnapping, a shocking twist that further complicates the actions of Keller now that it appears he’s been torturing what might be an innocent man.
The twists continue to pile up as layer upon layer of clues reveal that the truth is far more horrifying and unpredictable than anyone could have imagined.
“Prisoners” is one of the most intense and harrowing movies to be released in a long time, matching modern classics “Seven” and “The Silence of the Lambs” in its tone. It forces viewers to consider throughout what choices they would make in the same situation of having their child kidnapped, as well as whether they could maintain their own faith under those circumstances.
Every performance is expertly rendered, with Jackman and Gyllenhaal turning in the best work of their already impressive careers and Dano sacrificing himself to the service of a character that appears despicable at first and then ultimately sympathetic due to the abuse he suffers. Director Denis Villeneuve ratchets the tension to high levels throughout without ever allowing the story to slip into pulp fiction territory.
While the movie is riveting, upon later reflection there are a couple of plot holes and inexplicable character motivations that prevent it from being the full-bore classic it might have been. But the fact that a Hollywood movie dares to address heady issues of crime, punishment, faith and redemption in such direct and powerful fashion is commendable.
“Prisoners” is not an easy movie to watch. It may prove difficult for many to handle. But for those aware of its dark tones, it could prove to be a powerful experience.