Have you ever had the feeling when you’re watching a movie that the initial premise is so good — so well-written and executed — that there’s no way that it could maintain that throughout the whole picture? For me, this usually happens in mysteries.
The new crime thriller Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman as a desperate father and Jake Gyllenhaal as the single-minded detective trying to find Jackman and his neighbors’ missing daughters, creates world-hardened characters and winds them up into an impossibly tense situation.
But the intertwining threads of this dark mystery eventually become too heavy, and the story crumbles under the weight, casting aside its characters for a far-fetched, drawn-out third act that lessens the impact of the entire film.
Kidnapping and torture are grim subjects for a family drama, and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (2010 Oscar-nominated import Incendies) and cinematographer Roger Deakins (10-time Oscar nominee) supply tons of moody atmosphere to support the focused work of its actors. In addition to uncharacteristically downbeat turns from Jackman and Gyllenhaal, there are fine supporting turns from Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Maria Bello.
The moral issue at the center of the film, which involves the justification of extreme cruelty when children’s lives are on the line, is fascinating, which makes it all the more frustrating when Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay all but abandons it in the last of the film’s very long two and a half hours.
The typical twists and turns of the modern Hollywood thriller rear their ugly heads toward the end of the movie, and the audience is way ahead of the detective on the “a-ha” moment, which makes for a frustrating watch, especially considering how completely he is in the facts of the case.
Prisoners has too much on its mind — or maybe too little. It swims in the murky waters of moral complexity, but is content to skim the surface without engaging fully with the questions it raises. Rather, it is content to deliver a disappointingly convoluted mystery plot in an attempt to give the audience what it thinks it wants.