TIFF 2013: Prisoners Review


Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal find themselves at cross-purposes in “Prisoners.”

Torrential rain in the movies is always a shorthand for darkness and depravity. Prisoners has a lot of rain.

The child abduction thriller stars Hugh Jackman as an anguished father who reluctantly turns to vigilante justice, and Jake Gyllenhaal in a twitchy-eyed performance as the dogged detective investigating the case. Two young girls disappear into thin air, and the only lead anyone has is that they were seen playing next to a dilapidated RV before being abducted. From that setting, the film splinters into two different investigative techniques to find the missing children: torture and false imprisonment from Jackman’s angle, and lawful interrogation and evidence analysis from Gyllenhaal.

The film is littered with red herring suspects that act in incomprehensible ways. I think there’s an old adage somewhere (or maybe common police knowledge) that suspects who are innocent have no reason to run. For some reason, in this film, they always do. The solution to the mystery is entirely coincidental and convoluted – one cliched scene involves a character smashing his desk in frustration and then having an epiphany as he discovers the missing clue that was in front of him all along – and putting the puzzle pieces together from the film adds up to an entirely unsatisfactory picture. Hollywood films always seem to try to create an answer, however minute, for the killer’s motivation, forgetting that some of the strongest films in the genre (The Vanishing, Se7en, Zodiac) entirely ignore this aspect. Some people are evil, and we can leave it at that.

Prisoners has been described as a “near-perfect” film. I’d agree with that assessment. It’s atmospheric and tense, with great performances by all of the actors. Paul Dano in particular, as the near-mute murder suspect, carves out an enigmatic character in minimal screen time. It’s a great film, up until the point where it descends into formulaic thriller territory by explaining the narrative’s loose ends with a confrontation and chase sequence. However, the final scene of the film redeems this detour into familiar territory by ending on a chilling and ambiguous note. It doesn’t push the boundaries of the genre, but it’s an expertly-made thriller.

Grade: A-

Sidenote: Gyllenhaal’s character is supposed to be a veteran detective, but for some reason he’s visibly hurt and shaken by grieving parents who hate his guts because he’s having trouble finding their children. I would think that being devoted to the job (his character is introduced eating Chinese food alone on Thanksgiving – a cinematic signpost telling us that he is the “devoted workaholic with no family or friends”), Gyllenhaal would have a thicker layer of skin and perhaps be a bit more cynical.


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