Two families get together on a rainy Thanksgiving Day. Keller and Grace Dover (Jackman and Maria Bello) have two children, teenaged Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and much younger Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). Under the tutelage of his survivalist father, Ralph has just killed his first deer. They dine on venison at the home of Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). The Birch children are roughly the same age as the Dover’s, the eldest being Eliza (Zoe Borde) and the younger, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).
It’s a simple and universally frightening scenario. Joy and Anna need to run over to the Dover house (it’s within walking distance). The parents think nothing of it, until hours later when they realize the girls haven’t returned. After a frantic search, the police are contacted and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads up the investigation. While fingers initially point toward mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano), Loki doesn’t have any hard evidence and no arrest is made. Each of the four parents is understandably devastated, but Keller decides—for better or worse—to be proactive. He kidnaps Alex, convinced that the young man with the I.Q. of a ten-year-old knows more than he lets on.
It’s hard to say anything further about the plot. Unlike so many promotional campaigns, the marketing team handling Prisoners did an exemplary job of not revealing too much. Besides Alex (who he believes was released too early), Loki has Father Patrick Dunn (Len Cariou) to worry about after finding a rotting corpse in his basement. There’s also an unidentified individual who turns up at a candlelight vigil held for the missing girls. Why does he flee as soon as Loki takes the mildest interest in him?
All the pieces are eventually fitted together, but not before we see-saw queasily through a punishingly bleak series of machinations. We never learn much about Loki, arguably a weakness in the writing, but we know he’s solved every case he’s been assigned. An apparent loner (he spends his Thanksgiving solo in a Chinese restaurant), the twitchy, tattooed Loki is possessed by an inexhaustible drive to find Anna and Joy.
Because of Loki’s exasperation with Keller’s constant demands, we know the detective has dealt with this type of wannabe cop before. But he has no idea the depths to which Keller is willing to go in an attempt to achieve vigilante justice. A recovering alcoholic now fallen off the wagon, the rage-driven Keller cannot contain his fury that he has no ability to control the situation. “He’s not a person anymore,” he says of the captive Alex. He’s acting almost purely on instinct, putting the possibly clueless Alex through a series of medieval-level torture.
To be fair, Franklin and Nancy are arguably even worse in their actions, or rather lack thereof. Once Keller reveals his den of pain (a dilapidated, abandoned apartment building) to his friends, they fail to act on their initial repulsion. They want their daughter found too, and beating Alex to a pulp is eventually seen by them as one potential means of recovering her (even if Alex remains resolutely mum throughout his ordeal).
Warner Bros.’ 1080p, AVC-encoded transfer is an awesome sight. The stark, documentary-like approach to capturing the wintery desolation of this working-class town couldn’t be better presented. It’s a harsh movie with harsh visuals, so the unsparing, sometimes unpleasant detail we’re allowed to see is entirely appropriate. Whether it’s the stained-wood siding on the Dover’s house, Alex’s filthy RV, or the shabby abandoned apartment building/torture chamber, the transfer lets us see it all with crisp clarity. The DTS-HD MA 5.1 mix is surprisingly potent, given the talky nature of Prisoners. Atmospheric effects are greatly satisfying during the numerous rain-drenched outdoor scenes. Punches land with deep resonance. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s exquisitely subtle score creeps in quietly, enhancing the rear channels at key moments.
For some strange reason, Prisoners is super light in terms of extra features. All we get are two brief featurettes. “Every Moment Matters” is a three-minute piece of EPK fluff, basically an extended trailer. “Powerful Performances” isn’t much better. It runs nine minutes and is made up of interview clips. The absence of a director and/or writer’s commentary is kind of surprising. The Blu-ray combo pack includes a standard DVD and an UltraViolet digital copy.
In the end, Prisoners pushes the limits of credibility, morphing into something more lurid and pulpy than its elemental set-up initially suggests. The Birch family is disappointingly (and unfairly) treated as a plot device, another gear helping to turn the clockwork structure. But Jackman is a marvel, depicting the confused soul of a man unsure of what is right or wrong. Director Villeneuve and screenwriter Guzikowski never really take a stance on how they feel about Keller’s vigilantism. They’re more interested in sustaining the increasingly complex (but to be fair, never unclear) twists. Rather than the character study it could’ve been, Prisoners is a mechanical thriller. That’s not to say it isn’t a good mechanical thriller—it most certainly is and I highly recommend it.