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Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is accosted by Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) in “Prisoners.” Photo by Wilson Webb
Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is accosted by Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) in “Prisoners.” Photo by Wilson Webb
ArtsRancho Santa Fe

Film review: ‘Prisoners’ is a gripping tale

Two powerful performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal propel the ominous, compelling thriller known as “Prisoners” into an exciting moral predicament that few movies have dared to explore. 

It was supposed to be a normal Thanksgiving Day for the Dover and Birch families, but the mysterious kidnapping of their daughters Anna and Joy canceled their celebration plans.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) learns from his son that an RV belonging to Alex Jones (Paul Dano) was parked nearby at the time. In spite of Detective Loki’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) efforts to find answers, the police find no evidence against Jones and release him.

Still believing the girls are alive and Jones is responsible, a desperate Dover abducts him and subjects him to a brutal interrogation. But every time he makes an attempt to force a confession out of the suspect, he comes closer to losing touch with his humanity.

In the meantime, Detective Loki continues his investigation of the kidnappings, only to find himself facing a deadly predicament that puts his determination to the test.

From the moment you get a glimpse of the bleak color palette — a mixture of blacks and browns, lots of grays, some saturated yellows — and prying camera behavior, you know that what will unfold throughout “Prisoners” isn’t going to be pretty.

Not only does the moody atmosphere take shape right before your eyes, but it also lingers in your mind and never loses its grip on the adrenaline coursing through your veins. If it weren’t for cinematographer Roger Deakins, we wouldn’t have the haunting visuals that make the film’s tone all the more foreboding.

These technical factors serve to accentuate the complex emotions of “Prisoners,” most notably apparent in Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Both hold full command of their goals, the only difference being one embodies vengeful desperation and the other radiates brash confidence.

Not once does either lead fail to express the struggle he faces during his search to locate the kidnapped children, navigating obstacles to find people who may not be alive. That is the kind of human complexity that keeps audiences invested in movie narratives nowadays.

Speaking of which, you never know what’s going to happen next; each clue leads to another, taking us on a labyrinthine journey in which the case doesn’t supply us with cut-and-dried answers.

Watching Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s conflicting approaches to solving the investigation intersect at multiple points keeps the momentum going, which in turn builds up the intensity of the increasingly disturbing plot.

As a matter of fact, if “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” had a younger brother, this would be it.

“Prisoners” wouldn’t be what it is without Hugh Jackman; if you thought his “X-Men” role as Wolverine was a good example of brooding aggression, there’s a good chance you’ll change your mind once you see the unthinkable things he does here.

His foil, Jake Gyllenhaal, is also a critical human element that the film needed in its cast so as to realize its full potential. Think of his detective character as a well-deserved promotion from 2012’s “End of Watch,” as his strong performance is equally clever and vulnerable.

Terrence Howard handles himself well as Jackman’s concerned family friend, and Viola Davis and Maria Bello — the two families’ wives — imbue the investigation with a perceptible sense of melancholy.

Paul Dano takes getting captured rather well as he communicates via raspy whimpers, his childlike mannerisms coming across as both pathetic and creepy.

Last but not least, the term “understated” doesn’t even begin to describe Melissa Leo, whose portrayal of Dano’s adoptive parent never ceases to surprise the audience whenever she steps into view. She may appear to be just another bystander, but as the story progresses, you’ll come to realize how relevant she is to the plot.

When you go see “Prisoners,” if you start feeling as though you’re being pulled into a dark prison of moral dilemmas and can’t escape, then you’re probably too invested in the characters’ actions to look away. That’s a sign of how wonderful this movie truly is.


MPAA rating: R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout.

Running time: 2 hours and 33 minutes

Playing: In general release