One of the great movie litmus tests is about to be presented with Prisoners, a high-intensity drama starring Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard and Jake Gyllenhaal. The film essentially forces viewers to put themselves in the shoes of the main characters and answer one seemingly simple question: What would you do if you were in the same situation?
That situation is one no parent ever wants to contemplate: the kidnapping of a child. The daughters of both Keller Dover (Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Howard) disappear while playing together on Thanksgiving. Ultra-dedicated detective Loki (Gyllehaal) gets assigned the case.
With this wrenching, heart-breaking performance, Hugh Jackman will no longer just be the guy who plays Wolverine, no matter how many times he returns to that character.
Attention quickly turns to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was driving an RV the girls were seen playing on soon before their disappearance. But with little to hold him on other than his proximity to the crime, officials are forced to let him go. Dover, having already convicted Jones in his mind, decides to take matters into his own hands to find out what happened to the girls.
What happens next and throughout the rest of the film is brutal and unsettling, but it could also be completely justifiable. Director Denis Villenueve and writer Aaron Guzikowski do a great job of balancing the tone of the film, pulling back before things get too rough, but also never letting the characters — or the audience — off the hook for their actions.
They also space out the various revelations in such a way that it propels the two-and-a-half-hour hour movie forward at a seemingly breakneck pace. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably change your mind about certain characters' motives and how you feel about them two or three times before things are all said and done.
Until his performance in last year’s Les Miserables, Jackman had never really gotten his due for his skills. With this wrenching, heart-breaking performance, he will no longer just be the guy who plays Wolverine, no matter how many times he returns to that character.
Gyllenhaal is fantastic as well, although Loki’s numerous quirks prove to be distracting at times. First of all, he embodies the cliché of a detective who gives his all to the job at the expense of all else. Those people surely exist, but it’s a vastly overplayed movie device. Gyllenhaal also chooses to have this workaholic blink constantly, an oddity that becomes more annoying every time we see him.
The rest of the cast — which includes Howard, Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo — is tremendous. Dano is especially compelling as Alex, as he makes the character both supremely creepy and sympathetic at the same time.
Prisoners is an ultra-tense, can’t look/can’t look away kind of film that may have you questioning your own beliefs. And anytime a film can do that, you know you’ve just been in the presence of excellence.