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With: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Brad James
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
MPAA Rating: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
Running Time: 153
Date: 09/20/2013

Prisoners (2013)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

The Takers and the Taken

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I love police procedurals, since they are one of the few types of films that slows down and allows for filmmakers to focus on small details, on routines, that really build up characters. Most movies are designed to move fast for fear that the audience will grow bored. The new movie Prisoners comes from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose Incendies, though not perfect, was one of the better recent examples of a Best Foreign Language Oscar nominee. (It lost to the insipid In a Better World.) Incendies was, at its heart, a mystery, and it looked like a good bet that Villeneuve would be able to translate his skills to his big Hollywood debut. Well, there's slowing a movie down to capture juicy details, and then there's slowing down a movie too much, for things that are just not necessary.

Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, who works in construction. He's married to Grace (Maria Bello), and they hang out with another couple, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). The two couples have daughters about the same age, who love to play together. One afternoon, the girls simply disappear. The only clue is an RV that was seen parked near the house. Police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in. The RV is found, and the owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is questioned. But he doesn't talk. So while Loki moves onto new leads, the distraught Keller decides to kidnap Alex and lock him in one of his half-built buildings to question him himself.

There's a great deal more to the mystery, and Loki discovers several new suspects that are only vaguely connected with the crime, or at least provide only a hint of where to turn next. It's a fairly well-organized tale, truth be told. But the execution of it goes a little too far. Any symbolism that would have been effective in a 100-minute movie becomes oppressive in this 153-minute movie, especially a movie that presents itself as realism. For example, there's the name "Loki." I guess anyone who has seen The Avengers knows that Loki is the god of mischief, but how does it apply to this detective? How is he mischievous?

The more the movie goes on, the less these questions make sense. Plus, how many torture scenes do we need between Keller and Alex? Why does Loki wear that weird, ill-fitting dress shirt with the top button buttoned? Why was it necessary to have such a prolonged drive in the rain during the "exciting" climax? Aside from issues of slowness, there are several other problems of behavior, and the biggest one would cause me to give away the ending so I won't. Indeed, this movie actually gives the viewer time to pick things apart.

However, I expect that the draw of Prisoners will be the star power and the performances. Given the intensity of the situation, there's a lot of brow-furrowing here, and the actors step up for it. I'm sure the general perception will be that this is the best work by everyone involved. The exceptional Viola Davis, perhaps the best actor in this cast, has one or two moments of powerful confrontation, but for the most part, she's a "waiting, worrying" character, the same as Bello. Poor Howard eventually gets dropped from the drama as well, fading into the background. Gyllenhaal does his best stoic cop bit, and Jackman is much a mad dog here as he was in the X-Men movies. Dano seems destined to play creeps for the rest of his life, as, indeed, he's just creepy. Leo does a complete transformation and her performance is, to say the least, scary.

Villeneuve and his designers put together a gray, chilly, drizzly movie, where the suburban houses don't look much more inviting than a construction site. Yet the settings have a palpable, ground-level quality; you feel that people live in this world. It seems as if the filmmakers had everything all ready: good story, good sets, good actors. What they needed was a little discipline and a little restraint and Prisoners could have been something special.

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