What a disappointment. Especially after starting out so well. Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” has some interesting things to say about human nature and Aaron Guzikowski’s script keeps us guessing throughout. Then they throw it all away to pure commercialism. If only actual cases ended with all the loopholes closed, like the finale of “Prisoners” chooses. Was it possible for it to be any neater. After asking some tough, moral questions for close to two hours, the film wraps up everything in such a tidy fashion that I was chuckling and shaking my head. JonBenet Ramsey, Etan Patz, Adam Walsh…I could list many more infamous abducted children cases, but you get the point, right? These situations usually end up horrible and tragic, with many unanswered questions…and often little closure. When you make a major motion picture about a mysterious kidnapping, you immediately run the risk of having the questions being asked much more fulfilling then the answers eventually provided. The antidote is to avoid supplying all the answers. That is the main sin of “Prisoners”—it divulges too much, and ultimately treats its audience like a bunch of dopes.
Pennsylvania neighbors the Dovers and the Birches get together for Thanksgiving dinner at one of their suburban homes. Each family has a couple of kids, and at one point their young, kindergarten-age daughters Anna Dover and Joy Birch are out of sight, and presumed to be out front playing. As their parents search for the girls becomes increasingly frantic, the Dovers son Ralph(Dylan Minnette)remembers a battered RV that was parked on their block that the girls briefly climbed on. The RV is now gone. Police are alerted, and later that night the RV is located. When the authorities approach it, the driver attempts to flee—and crashes. They remove and arrest Alex Jones(a well-cast Paul Dano), who turns out to be mentally deficient with the I.Q. of a ten-year old. After he’s released, due to the lack of evidence against him, Anna’s father Keller Dover(a wildly, intense Hugh Jackman)decides to abduct and torture Alex. His feeling is they may only have limited time to save the girls, and he feels emboldened by something Alex said that points to his involvement in the crime. When Keller lets his friends Franklin and Nancy Birch(solid turns by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis)know what he’s attempting, they are horrified. But they don’t try to stop him either, and they keep from divulging Keller’s actions to his distraught wife, Grace(an effective Maria Bello). As the pensive, tattooed Detective Loki(a strong Jake Gyllenhaal)pursues the case, Joy Birch suddenly pops up mostly unharmed. And Keller begins to up the ante on his treatment of Alex in his quest to locate the still-missing Anna .
With the end credits included, “Prisoners” is a lengthy 153 minute film. It garnered some solid reviews and earned respectable box office this fall season. But the last half hour is full of crap. The movie works for a good portion as a thriller, but it begins hard only to end soft. It succeeds in getting you to invest in these characters and care about them, and then lets everyone you feel for “off the hook”, while punishing the guilty in a lethal manner. The film props itself up as an art piece, aided by the solid direction of Villenueve and gorgeous cinematography from the brilliant Roger Deakins. Then it becomes a pulpy cop-out incorporating an unrecognizable Melissa Leo into a ridiculous, red-herring sideswipe. Ultimately, “Prisoners” did not have the courage of its convictions. And I understand that it’s a commercial move, but it also rendered it into mediocrity. Too bad. Grade: C+