As someone who is not a fan of being tense and pooping their pants for two hours straight I rarely go to see thrillers. In fact, had I read anything about Prisoners before seeing the film I may not have gone to see it at all but I’m glad I did. If I had known the story was about a happy American family, a psychotic kidnapping and a unstoppable father then I may have thought; intense kidnapper chase, psychotic antagonists, an unexpected twist and a happy ending. There is some truth in this prediction but Prisoners also offers a lot more than your standard thriller.
My greatest commendation of Prisoners is that it gives a side to every story including both of the kidnapped children’s families (primarily Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard), the main suspect and his aunt (Paul Dano and Melissa Leo) and the charming detective (Jake Gyllenhaal). Charming may have been a slightly subjective term but I just couldn’t help myself… Each member of the mystery gradually gains information that the others do not have and the narrative works very convincingly at making sure that the other parties do not spontaneously also “know”. This creates that fantastic and frustrating sense of “It’s her! It’s him! It’s there! It’s that!” for the all-knowing audience while maintaining the characters completely clueless helplessness.
In terms of some of the characters there is a slightly unrealistic transition from their original portrayal to their sudden transformation after the kidnapping. The Dover’s, our protagonist’s family, begin as a rather one-dimensional, happy American family along with their friends who are unsurprisingly another happy American family. To stereotype the whole situation even further, they’re having dinner on thanks giving. There’s introduction of such a ‘standard’ situation should be part of the charm of the following unexpected incident but instead it creates a fairly false impression of the characters, especially Keller Dover (Jackman) who quickly becomes much more layered and complex. Keller immediate transition to violent, irrational father is slightly too drastic for my liking. His transition appears especially dramatic in comparison to the rest of his inactive family; his bedridden wife and his nervous son. The change from metaphoric angel to demon later becomes a main theme but only in retrospect could I appreciate the abrupt changes as a conscious decision by the filmmaker. The connection made between the insinuated themes and the developing characteristics of Keller were delivered much too late to be considered clear and relevant.
Contrary to Jackman’s character, Gyllenhaal has the potential for depth from the very start. It just takes a few comments and subtle twitches from Detective Loki for the audience to realise that he is determined, anxious and obsessed with pleasing others. As the story develops and Detective Loki seems to come closer to the truth, the desperation of his actions reveal more and more intriguing details about his personality, limits and values.
However, the portrayal of the suspect (Dano) and his aunt (Leo) is not quite as subtle. Dano’s character is an odd mixture between masochistic and infantile which lays great groundwork for a mysterious villain but provides no insight into his reasoning and motivations until much later. His refusal to speak makes him sufficiently inhumane and difficult to relate to but it fortunately does not undermine the brutality of Keller’s abuse towards him which creates almost as much of a distance from our hero as to our antagonist. Although the conclusion of Prisoners makes the strange character of Dano become evidently clearer, the reveal of this information is so clunky and explanatory that it is reminiscent of a Miss Marple revelation (no offense to Agatha Christie of course, she’s a legend in her own right).
Although some of the characters were not as well-developed as they could have been, the story did not suffer for this. The narrative was sufficiently captivating and intense and I often found myself gripping my seat with every new discovery, cringing at every bad decision of Keller or Loki and ultimately rooting for the heroes from start to end. The film strategically uses very slight hints to the truth throughout the narrative which makes the audience kick themselves at each new revelation. The atmosphere is gripping, the story is well plotted and I must admit that my disappointment in some of the characters is probably due to the comparison with the fantastic character and performance of Gyllenhall as Detective Loki. However, as in many thrillers, Prisoners is another lazy user of mental problems and psychotic behaviour as a replacement for realistic, logical motives which let down such a twisted, complicated plot.