Prisoners starts out as a tense and gripping story of every parent’s worst nightmare after two young girls disappear on Thanksgiving Day.

Hugh Jackman is Keller Dover, a husband and father with a survivalist bent whose motto is “hope for the best, prepare for the worst. ” Dover with his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and kids, Anna and Ralph join neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) and their daughters Joy and Eliza for the occasion.

The day suddenly takes a turn from ordinary to nightmarish when the two families realize the girls, who’ve gone off to play, are missing. The main suspect becomes Alex Jones, a young man with the mind of a 10 year-old who is parked in a camper at a nearby house right before the girls go missing.

Jake Gyllenhaal is Loki, the loner detective assigned to the investigation who has solved every case he’s ever worked. Gyllenhaal who early in his career wasn’t very interesting to watch has morphed into a versatile, three-dimensional actor and he’s intense and convincing as the dogged, determined Loki who is always watching and connecting the dots.

When Loki can’t find physical evidence to connect Alex to the abduction of the two girls, he is released. That’s when Dover, convinced that Alex is involved, takes matters into his own hands and imprisons Alex in an abandoned house he owns. It is hard to watch as with the help of his reluctant neighbor Franklin, Dover tortures and interrogates Alex in a desperate attempt to find the girls before it’s too late.

There’s no question that what Dover is doing is wrong and unlike other “vigilante” movies where someone takes the law into their own hands, it’s difficult to root for Dover because we don’t know if Alex is guilty and the gravity of the disappearance of the girls is so disturbing that you can’t get into that cheering mind frame.

The actions of Hugh Jackman’s character are so brutal and the lack of time spent showing a softer side to him makes it hard to connect to Keller Dover in spite of the horror of what he is going through. There’s a missing element to the development and portrayal of Dover and the performance actually feels cold.

The female characters in the film are given very little to do and so Maria Bello and Viola Davis are virtually wasted.

Prisoners is a tightly paced story with a consistently dark look and tone that fits the grave subject. Unfortunately, two thirds of the way in the film takes a wrong turn and veers away from the focal point of the two missing girls and the ends to which those connected to them, including the police, will go to save them and splinters off into too many directions. There seem to be three endings and a story within a story within a story like a set of Russian nesting dolls that don’t quite fit together. What should be the central point of the film, Dover’s kidnapping and torture of Alex is shunted to the side and the magnitude of what he’s done is not addressed.

Prisoners sets up what should be a complex moral dilemma and delivers suspense and heartbreak, which makes it all the more frustrating when it falls apart.

 

 

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