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Review: Prisoners

Prisoners
Director    Denis Villeneuve
Starring    Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis
Release    20 SEP (US) 27 SEP (UK)    Certificate 15

Rating:


On a list of fantasy dads, Hugh Jackman's got to rate pretty highly. There can't be many actors who you'd want to drop you off at school, teach you to shave or come round and fix your boiler. Clooney? Too pretty. Downey Jr? Too easily distracted. Cruise? Too weird. But even though he's younger than them all, Jackman's got "ideal dad" written all over him, which makes him enormously watchable in the role of protective pop in Prisoners. That is until he transforms into a screaming demon of furious, misguided, hammer-wielding vengeance, at which point I'll take back my actual dad thanks very much. He might not be Hugh Jackman but at least he doesn't perforate your eardrums every time he opens his mouth.

To be fair, Jackman's character - the preposterously-named Keller Dover - has every reason to yell his capacious lungs off: his young daughter and her friend have mysteriously disappeared after recently being seen near an RV belonging to local weirdo Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Because Jones perfectly fits the tabloid idea of a child molestor - lank, greasy hair, enormous glasses, mentally retarded - Dover naturally assumes he's taken the girls, and when the police fail to gather enough evidence to charge Jones, Dover takes the only logical course of action. You might think the only logical course of action would be for him to keep searching, stay with his family and help the police with their enquiries, but that's where you're mistaken. In actual fact the only logical course of action is to kidnap Jones, handcuff him to a radiator in an abandoned house and noisily punch his face inside out.

If only Hugh had forced Paul to watch The Wolverine, he'd have told him everything.


As morally questionable as Dover's actions are, they do at least make for an exciting first half-hour of ever-so-slightly ridiculous dramatic thriller. In this first act we also get solid support from Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the remaining 75% of this almost unbearably twee quartet of unexceptional middle Americans-turned-manically distraught parents; typically terrific work from Roger Deakins, whose cinematography is as cold and crisp as a frozen corpse; and an outstanding turn from Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop assigned to the missing girls' case, Detective Loki (these names, Jesus). Everything about Gyllenhaal's performance and appearance - from his buttoned-up shirts barely covering unsightly tattoos, through his hate-hate relationship with his Captain, to his facial twitch - lend Loki a believable humanity that evades so many screen detectives.

And frankly it's a good job Gyllenhaal and Jackman are so good, because the film's next hour is so bereft of anything in the way of plot development that lesser actors would have you upturning your popcorn bucket and using it as a headrest on which to catch forty winks while you wait for something to happen. While Loki's investigation goes nowhere and Dover's captor / prisoner dynamic with Jones proves undynamic, only a brief bit of odd behaviour by another potential suspect threatens to quicken the pulse. Given that Prisoners is ONE HUNDRED AND FIFTY-THREE minutes long, it's frustrating that Jackman was required to go postal so readily in the first act while the second stretches out so languidly. Aaron Guzikowski's uneven script is just about saved by the leads' magnetism, and it's a relief when the final hour steps up a gear or two, even if it occasionally gets a bit ridiculous for its own good.

Jake's haircut being among the least ridiculous things.


There's an attempt to weave a theme of misplaced or lost faith throughout the story: Dover is a man of faith who feels let down by the authorities; his wife transfers her faith in him to Loki, knowing that he's solved every case he's been given; there's even an alcoholic priest with a creepy basement to tell you that even those who live by faith can't be saved by it. Yet any work done towards adding subtext to the plot is undone by some hard-to-swallow developments, a stagnant middle act, some frustratingly garbled exposition and a forehead-slapping monologue towards the end.

Prisoners boils down to a well-acted, good-looking thriller, competently directed by Denis Villeneuve but in need of a ruthless pair of scissors taken to the script. That it remains enjoyable despite itself is a testament to its director and leads, and it's enough to suggest that Villeneuve's next film, Enemy (out in February, also starring Gyllenhaal and a mercifully brief 90 minutes long), could right Prisoners' wrongs.



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