One of the signs of a great movie is when you can't stop thinking about it. Usually those kinds of films are what you get when you leave the theater with your friends or your date and discuss what you just saw and what you either think it means or try to explain it. Those discussions will last you the drive home but it's really rare that you're still talking about it the next day or the day after that. That's exactly the kind of experience Prisoners is. I brought my friend Mimi and we not only talked about it the whole way home but emailed each other the next day with our theories.
Before the film started, the studio representative read a letter that director Denis Villeneuve wrote welcoming us and preparing us for the film. It was oddly humble and warmly inviting. He explained how this was his first mainstream American movie and, despite that, the final product was still very much his original vision, which makes sense because at almost three-hours-long, a studio would have tried to shave that down by an hour. I'm not sure if this letter made me enjoy Prisoners more than I should have or if the movie really is that good.
It follows two families dealing with the loss of their daughters who are abducted on Thanksgiving. One family, lead by Terrence Howard (The Butler, Crash) and Viola Davis (The Help, Doubt), deals with the loss by collapsing on each other with grief and the other, lead by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello (A History of Violence, World Trade Center), deal with it...well...differently. The star of the film is Jackman who is pushed to his limit and resorts to kidnapping the lead suspect, who's played masterfully creepy by Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Looper). Once that happens, the movie is pitch black and hopeless. It's a true statement on how far a father will go and how far a father should go.
Jackman delivers a performance that is Oscar-caliber. He stands out in a cast of amazing performances showing a character that is terrifying and vulnerable at the same time in every single scene. However, his opposing force is Jake Gyllenhaal, who's the detective trying to find the girls but also getting more and more suspicious of Jackman's grieving father. Both men have crafted characters that are so well carved out that you know so much about their pasts without it ever being addressed in dialogue. It's an utterly incredible character study.
However, the performances aren't enough to make this the masterpiece that it almost was. As I mentioned before, the running time is kind of unforgiving. Scenes are allowed to play out at the pace that Villeneuve wanted and I'm not entirely sure they were all necessary. The other flaw was on the fault of the script which has predictable twists and plot holes that are passed off as clever and tricky; they're neither. Just as you're wrapping your mind around this film, something is brought up or discussed that seems interesting and mind-blowing but then is dropped, never addressed again or left to hang out there in hopes you'll forget it. It just makes the final product confusing.
Despite that, Prisoners is a film that will be talked about and featured in Oscar nominations. It's a movie that shows us the darkest parts of humanity and how regular people can react to them. It's depressing and awful and not for everyone. That's not to say that it's graphic but the mere suggestions of what happens can make you ill. The grey, rainy bleakness of the Central Pennsylvania fall featured in the movie is the only visual tone that matches the story, which overstays its welcome by about twenty minutes. But if you're searching for the performances that may define a career, Prisoners is the place to be.