The Good: Excellent acting, frequently intense, keeps you guessing, great cinematography, expertly crafted tone
The Bad: The plot has some holes, not as tightly paced as it could be, uses genre clichés a little too much
Release Date: September 20, 2013
Prisoners is a dark movie that will keep audiences enraptured for most of its duration and force them to consider some difficult questions. At its start, the daughters of two families disappear, and the film follows a detective and a father as they each work to solve the mystery in different ways. The detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the moral high ground but often struggles with the other side, while the father (Hugh Jackman) will do anything it takes to rescue his daughter and ultimately resorts to torture. It’s in the father’s moral struggle that Prisoners comes across the strongest, and this struggle is portrayed so well that most audiences will overlook the movie’s rough spots.
Though it’s his first Hollywood film, Denis Villeneuve directs with the confidence and purpose of many better-known directors. The cinematography is well done, and the shots and sets support the underlying messages of the movie well. There’s a dark and foreboding tone that pervades Prisoners throughout, and the often slow pacing allows plenty of time for its actors to truly convey the emotion behind each scene. While there are some points where this pacing could have been tightened up a little, overall Villeneuve has done an outstanding job of leading audiences deeper and deeper into his mystery and the despair it revolves around. It’s an emotionally taxing film, and I doubt if anyone in any audience will be able to take it lightly.
My highest praises for Prisoners have to go to Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal for their excellent acting. Each portrays their character in ways that are sublimely believable, and each bring small eccentricities to their performances that genuinely bring these folks to life. The pain and anger Hugh Jackman shows in his struggle to find his daughter might just be Oscar-worthy, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s tortured detective makes for a riveting character study.
The questions Prisoners asks are both relevant and disturbing. We are given a situation and asked repeatedly if each step is too far given the context. What would we be willing to do for our children, and at which point do we change from heroes to villains? It’s an engaging debate, and Prisoners does a great job with it.
My only complaints with Prisoners lay largely in the writing. When stripped of its torture scenes, Prisoners is a pretty straight forward crime movie that relies on clichés and conventions of the genre that are already overused. The motivations of the “bad guys” never felt true to me, and there were far too many puzzle pieces that were introduced at just the right time to help the characters. Worse, there were many pieces of the puzzle that I didn’t feel fit with the movies themes, and while some of these were intriguing, they kept Prisoners from adding up to something more than its parts. At several points characters didn’t act believably, and anyone who has ever seen an episode of CSI or even Scooby-Doo will be able to spot the red herring a mile away. With its traditional crime structure and lack of a twist that most audience members won’t have already figured out, the last fourth of Prisoners ends up being predictable and even a little slow.
For all its flaws though, the tone of Prisoners and the moral questions it asks will be plenty engaging for most audiences. Add in the great performances, and most audiences will probably never spot the logical flaws here at all. Villeneuve’s first Hollywood effort is a success, and this will most likely play extremely well with audiences.