In the opening scene the whole Keller family goes to visit Franklin Birch’s family. There’s an obvious history between the two lineages and everyone is made to feel incredibly welcome and the kids go off to play while the adults talk about boring adult stuff. A dirty, withered old caravan peruses the suburban streets while this merrily plays out. When everyone reconvenes after a few hours that’s when the horror is realised: the two youngest daughters have gone missing.
It’s an old premise that invokes fine vigilantism from director Denis Villenevue of Incendies fame. Villenevue is working on a fine script from writer Aaron Guzikowski but it’s his own hand that keeps the film at a long-episode-of-SVU level. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, if you love SVU. It’s just not a particularly interesting thing when it lasts 153 minutes.
To his credit Villenevue is doing everything in good taste. Jake Gyllenhaal succeeds as the friendly cop Detective Loki who’s never failed to close an investigation. Hugh Jackman plays tradesman Keller Dover in one of his finest roles yet. Here he rants and rages and rages he does: via his hand there is a whole lot of violence going on. He cries and screams and punches walls and it’s as natural a performance as Jackman has ever offered. He is truly weeping for his missing daughter and how he goes about his grief is immoral, yet perhaps understandable.
Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) however spends a great deal of time either asleep or threatening to. Instead of playing off Keller’s fury as the good conscience—which he initially tries to—he readily faces the music without even trying to force another point of view. It’s as if Keller was the schoolyard bully and Franklin gave him all of his lunch money without Keller lifting so much as a finger.
The suspected killer Alex Jones (Paul Dano, certainly looking the part of creepy) offers solid support with his mother Holly (Melissa Leo) but their little residence out in the sticks reeks of something borrowed from another movie. Leo thinks so too as she’s on autopilot half of the time.
The heart of Prisoners lies with Keller (Jackman). He is the everyday, father of the year Dad who wants nothing more than the safe return of his daughter. Loki may certainly be the brain of the film, acting not on impulse but with evidence and as according to the law, but he’s not far behind Keller. He wants to catch the kidnapper just as much as Keller does but has the advantage of her not being his daughter. He’s able to switch off when necessary, something Keller is incapable of.
Indeed, Keller even confronts him in one scene when he’s called into questioning regarding a possible suspect. “You made this happen,” he barks for reasons I won’t spoil here. Keller’s vigilantism is constantly under threat, not necessarily by Loki but via his clouded mind. Everything he does is irrational and Jackman excels in the process. It’s hysterical, rampant behaviour.
Prisoners attempts to be some kind of family drama that rolls in the same moral quagmire as Taxi Driver and positions Keller as if John Rambo was ever a family man living out in suburbia Pennsylvania. Unfortunately it falls way short of the mark as Jackman is the sole star of the film and no one is backing him up in support. Silence overrules scenes when there should be gasps of dread and a weak supporting cast makes it feel like a television movie. It certainly looks beautiful though, cinematography courtesy of Roger Deakins.
Nicholas Brodie - follow Nick on Twitter here: @fodusempire