“Prisoners†captivates through final frame

By Karsten Burgstahler


It has been a while since Hollywood has produced an effective, brutal thriller. Nowadays thrillers are flashy with expensive chase scenes and stylish actors. Everything is overstated, little is subtle.

So while I am not going to call “Prisoners” (Rated R; 153 Min.) the new “Silence of the Lambs,” it certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same sentence with top-notch thrillers like “Se7en.” 


“Prisoners” concerns Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, in an Oscar-worthy performance), a father whose daughter vanishes along with her friend on Thanksgiving Day. The four parents (Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) begin a desperate search for their children. The police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, in another Oscar-worthy performance), arrest a suspect, but are forced to let him go when it is clear he did not have the mental capacity to carry out a kidnapping. However, Dover is convinced the man is guilty and lets his obsession get the best of him.

To go any further would spoil the film, and I am certainly not in the business to let you skip this one. Suffice to say “Prisoners” takes some dark twists and turns, but never lets flashy set pieces get in the way of tense storytelling and spot-on performances.

The first thing one notices is the bleak setting and atmosphere the filmmakers have created. Dover’s town is filled with mysterious citizens, many of whom are down on their luck. This is a town where the old Kmart has been converted to a thrift store; the chill that hangs in the air as the rain falls at night helps it become more desolate. Herein lies another thing the filmmakers could have tripped up on: the “storm is coming” cliché is heavy-handed. Master cinematographer Roger Deakins gives us scenes of search parties wandering through the forests armed with flashlights and quiet vigils with flickering candles. That chill the audience feels is not just the A/C kicking on.

To fill this space, the audience is given Dover, a man who “prays for the best but prepares for the worst,” a survivalist who thought he was ready for anything. His rage simmers just under the surface — Jackman wisely controls it so that his brutality seems like even more of a shock when we see what he is truly capable of. It has been a while since my jaw has dropped during a movie, and there are at least two instances in this movie that put an end to that streak.

Loki, driven by Gyllenhaal, is a tired cop, but is never bogged down by thriller cop clichés. He struggles with the decisions he has made and is forced to deal with the consequences when it appears he may fail for the first time.

Some critics have complained about the pacing of the movie and its lengthy running time — after all, after trailers you will be in the theater for nearly three hours — but the longer duration allows the plot to unfold in a more satisfying manner. The investigation becomes more bizarre as Loki digs into the lives of some of the townspeople and discovers deep, dark secrets you will wish you did not see. The mystery never feels stagnant; you will have a good time trying to piece together the puzzle. There will be those who claim they guessed the ending at the beginning. Those people are liars.

Yes, “Prisoners” can be brutal at times. It is certainly not Saturday afternoon popcorn fodder. But you will be hard pressed to find more interesting characters and fulfilling storytelling at the theater than you will find here. If “Prisoners” is a sign of things to come, I would say we have a pretty strong Oscar season ahead of us.


Karsten Burgstahler can be reached at [email protected] or 536-3311 ext. 261.