Jake Gyllenhaal appeared in one of the few perfect cop procedurals, David Fincher’s winding Zodiac. He’s on the case again, hunting a child abductor in Prisoners. But the film, replete with excellent performances everywhere you look and an inescapably dark tone, is too caught up in making you guess where the action is going. Apparently, director Denis Villeneuve never learned that when movies try to outthink the audience they only outthink themselves.
The weird thing, though, is that the film was on the right path for two solid hours (yep, this is a long one) before inexplicably shifting gears. On Thanksgiving, the daughters of Keller (Hugh Jackman) and his best friend Franklin (Terrence Howard) walk from one family’s house to the other. They never come back. A creepy RV was seen in the neighborhood, and within hours the driver is apprehended. Alex (Paul Dano) seems like the perfect suspect; his pleas of innocence are unconvincing, he was driving that RV, and he tried to flee.
But as Det. Loki (Gyllenhaal) explains to Keller, Alex has the mind of a 10-year-old. There’s no way he could have done it without leaving a trace. So another suspect emerges, and then another, with Keller all the while believing Alex has to be the guy. And he does what any wrathful father would do: Kidnap his suspect and try to torture the truth out of him. Amazingly, nobody seems bothered by the fact that a kidnapping suspect is released and vanishes the next day. But, you know, it’s the holidays and people get busy.
Anyway, all of that would be fine if Prisoners didn’t keep adding layers and characters. After investing so much into a chilling and believable abduction saga, the film gives it all away for cheap gimmicks. The imperfection of Prisoners is that it doesn’t know how good it is, and then spends an unnecessary half-hour dismantling itself.
PRISONERS Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Paul Dano, directed by Denis Villeneuve, rated R, 153 mins