It’s 3 am, Do Hugh Know Where Your Children Are?
If you write a mystery as long and bleak as Prisoners, the destination better be worth the journey, and it just isn’t. There’s a lot to like about it, from the intense acting to the gritty composition and a couple of scenes that are legitmately chilling. It just takes too long to get to the point, and then when it gets there, the conclusion isn’t worthy of the build up. It starts off feeling like a classic slow burn, but only manages to get about luke warm before it fizzles out two and a half long hours later.
Prisoners is bleak and dour, which isn’t a knock in and of itself. Bleak and dour can be amazing if done well, a la Winter’s Bone. But I give a film more leeway to be grey and depressing if it feels true to life, if it offers some insight. And if you’re not going to offer insight, at least be entertaining. Prisoners starts off believable enough, but by the time it starts laying its cards on the table, which it waits way too long to do, you start to realize that it has about as much insight as your average Law and Order episode. Which is fine if you’re making a tight, snappy whodunnit, but not when you’re making a two-and-half movie without so much as a smile, characterized by long periods of not much happening. Prisoners is a slow burn without the burn, grit without the realism. Lie to me if you must, but at least entertain me.
Hugh Jackman, no stranger to playing hairy dudes, plays a hirsute, blue-collar Joe Sixpack named Keller Dover, which is an anagram of what a real name sounds like. A hunter, a doomsday prepper, and a loving father, he’s basically the Bounty man with a bomb shelter. We open with him teaching his teen son to hunt deer, laying the groundwork for “unsympathetic survivalist devoted to his family.” After they cut open the deer and take out its meat, Jackman and son pack up his younger daughter and wife (Maria Bello) for Thanksgiving at his black friend’s house. The friend turns out to be a trumpet-tooting veterinarian played by Terrence Howard, who has a wife and two daughters about the same age as Jackman’s kids. It would’ve been nice if they’d just let the black-family-and-white-family-having-Thanksgiving-together thing sit there without overtly acknowledging race, and they almost did, but not quite, as Terrence Howard uses “I’m black” for his excuse for not knowing a Springsteen song on the trumpet. Oh well. Racial understanding has more of an impact when you don’t make a thing out of it.
At some point, the younger daughters leave to play while the grown-ups drink wine and toot trumpets, and they never come back. The girls were last seen climbing on a filthy RV, whose cover of grime and lightly steaming exhaust pipe ominously project a subtle dread. It turns out to be owned by mostly comatose drifter guy Paul Dano, who we’re told, in the first Law-and-Order-ish plot point, “has the IQ of a 10-year-old.” Which, obviously, would’ve sounded much cooler in the form of a rhetorical question posed by Ice T.
Hugh Jackman is convinced Motor Home Charlie has something to do with the girls’ disappearance, but the lead detective, Detective Loki, named after the Norse God of poorly-named characters (Jake Gyllenhaal), can’t find any evidence, and has to let him go.
Once the police seem to be making no progress, Jackman, who prides himself on control and preparedness and self reliance what with the aforementioned doomsday prepping and all, kidnaps the man-child and chains him to a radiator in an abandoned house to try to torture the information out of him. Dano’s character is named “Alex Jones,” by the way, and I like to think it was meant as an inside joke that the guy from infowars has the intellect of a 10-year-old and ends up getting tortured by the kind of guy who’d be his audience.
Gyllenhaal is fantastic (if blinky) as the determined but conflicted detective, and Jackman is committed, if one-note, as the father-who’ll-do-anything-to-get-his-daughter-back. The greater problem is that between the couple scenes that are legitimately chilling, it’s all just such joyless trudgery. The big three characters – Gyllenhaal, Howard, and Jackman – are nicely rendered, but all their changes happen early in the story, and after the setup, it’s mostly just a long, slow trudge. All the stuff I’ve described above was in the trailer, and the rest of the movie is just a slow slog, followed by a thoroughly not-believable conclusion that might be climactic if it wasn’t so silly. MY GOSH, IT WAS OLD MAN JENKINS THE WHOLE TIME!
Jackman turns from loving to sadistic, but there’s no moral reckoning for his character, just sadness and sadism and grief ladled on top of each other. Which becomes a chore to watch after a while, eventually leading to a rushed series of plot twists that’d be pure Scooby Doo if they weren’t about rape and murder and kidnapping. A religious cult “waging a war on God?” Yeah, okay.
Dark subject matter like this feels that much more perverse when it’s totally phony. All the more so when the filmmaker seems to be taking no joy in it. It’s one thing to film what you know to delve into your own issues, but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Like all the popular network crime procedurals, it feels a bit like the creators are just going through the motions, filming the lurid crimes they heard about on Dateline to sate the public’s perceived desire for child rape. Ick. And no thanks on two and a half hours of Wolverine acting sullen. Sing me a song or something, you frowny f*ck.