When a film premise includes child abduction and human torture, it’s already starting off as dark as humanly possible. It’s hard to imagine it getting much worse.
The fact that “Prisoners” manages to take these elements and go much much further to places your imagination never would have dared, creating one of the most darkly disturbing, distressing and emotionally exhausting films of the year, is nothing short of brilliant.
“Prisoners” brings something new to horror, thriller and crime stories that has been missing for some time — emotional investment. Sure, there are all the films about demonic possession and cartoonishly over-the-top serial killers. But there is nothing quite so real or as emotionally investing than the idea of children in danger, and the very real, very human monsters that are not so obvious in reality.
The peaceful lives of two families are shattered when their two little girls fail to come home for Thanksgiving dinner after playing outside. Within a few hours the police get involved. A suspect who’d been seen earlier driving an old RV near the home is named and immediately detained. He is the mentally challenged loner Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano).
But when the police fail to find any evidence in his vehicle, determine he has the IQ of a 10 year old and find he has no knowledge of where the missing girls are, he’s immediately ruled out as a suspect by chief investigator Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and released.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is convinced that this strange man must know something that he’s not telling the cops and is desperate to hang on to the last thread of evidence he has to find his daughter and her friend alive. He then makes the grim decision to kidnap and torture Jones to get the information out of him.
Most distressing of all is the very real lingering mood throughout the movie that hints at some point the cases will become less about finding children and more about determining where bodies are buried.
That’s not to even get into the morally distressing, disturbing path the film explores with the theme of torture and what could drive someone to consider it. Keller is established as a good man and of course you’re going to root for him. He is a father who’s lost his daughter and is willing to go through hell to get her back.
A lesser movie would simply play on the audience’s desire for revenge and become some over-the-top gratification-indulging revenge fantasy. But “Prisoners” makes you walk that road to its logical conclusion: watching a good man wracked with grief begin to justify doing horrible things based on his own flimsy justifications.
“Prisoners” is an incredibly emotionally draining story and it’s brought to life by gripping performances. Emotions are poured through the screen, helped by the dark subject matter and the bleak setting of rain-soaked Pennsylvania. And all these elements come together to make a truly unforgettable film.