TIFF 2013 Review: Prisoners

Prisoners Jake Gyllenhaal Hugh Jackman

To be fair, Prisoners was not a movie I was particularly interested in based on the premise and the trailer. It’s one of those fortunate circumstances of timing where a studio film with the right elements is coming out relatively soon after a film festival, so it can be one of the A-list talent centerpieces of the Toronto International Film Festival (and Telluride before).

As such, it is one of the major titles to report on as a festival premiere for early buzz. That actually makes me angrier that I could’ve seen some hungry new talent’s debut masterpiece instead, but that’s irrelevant to you, the viewer, who will seek out the latest Hugh Jackman/Jake Gyllenhaal movie when it hits theaters.

Prisoners is intellectual torture porn. It’s torture of both the emotional kind and the bloody kind. I like movies about grief and dark themes, but I hate self-importance. Parts of Prisoners are chilling, sure, but to what end? To say that bad things happen? That’s actually missing the point of movies about tragedy, or actual torture porn. Grief movies are there to say that there is still a life to live for the survivors. Good torture horror films are about consequences and resurrections, spiritual and literal. Prisoners takes two and a half hours to revel in misery with little more than a plot twist as the reward.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) are family friends whose daughters go missing. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating, but their only suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is let go because he has a 10-year-old’s I.Q. and can’t tell them anything. So Keller kidnaps and tortures Alex himself.

The film has to spend a full hour on the standard police investigation and family grief just to prove it’s realistic. Sure, this isn’t a “Law & Order” episode where the characters just deliver the lines of the plot. We’ve got to let Jackman show how unhinged Keller is becoming. We’ve got to let Maria Bello show how his wife Grace medicates herself to cope with the loss.

The actors are very good at portraying the depth of impossible situations. Unfortunately they are only given superficial signifiers. We meet Loki eating Thanksgiving dinner by himself in a Chinese restaurant. Get it? Because he’s a loner! Later he throws all the work off his desk in frustration. I’m just asking the writers to come up with new ways to portray these character beats. I had the same problem in Argo when he wakes up surrounded by empty takeout boxes. I do other things to indicate my social problems! Can’t movie people do different things too?

As much attention is paid to Keller’s line-crossing vigilante plot, I feel it’s only lip service, all two and a half hours of it. Not that we’re rooting for Keller to torture Alex. On the contrary, we’re blatantly being given our medicine for even thinking that we’d like to just kill the creepy guy we assume did it. Keller pushes Franklin past his edge. Point taken, I get that. Not every father can go as far as Keller, but Franklin’s reaction is at least more complicated than just “torture is wrong.” It’s more like “torture is not for me.”

In trying to explain how exploitive this material is without spoiling the plot, I’m alluding to a lack of payoff I can’t quite specify. There may be a good number of red herrings, including a sequence that may be the anti-Hitchcock. It’s constructed in such a way that you have all the elements necessary to worry that one character is getting found out, but it’s not even a misdirect. It’s a nondirect. It’s just a scene where something doesn’t happen, but it doesn’t happen really suspensefully!

Now I don’t want to spoil a movie that you still may see, even if I didn’t like it. A normal audience of people who haven’t watched every studio movie released in the last 30 years may even be surprised, so great. The critical community, however, has the same references I do and should have found Prisoners entirely predictable. I can’t name those references because then it’s a spoiler, but if you end up seeing Prisoners and you tell me you didn’t see that coming, then I owe you a coke.

If Ransom was a Hollywood version of a kidnapping designed to make you feel safe, that everything was really going to be okay, Prisoners is designed to be unsettling for the sake of being unsettling. I generally like unsettling movies if they’re effective, but the machinations were so apparent to me it made me resentful.


Second Opinoon: William Bibbiani calls Prisoners "a nifty little crime thriller that deserved more.​"

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.