Intensity of ‘Prisoners’ outpaces its far-fetched plot

Hollywood Soapbox logoPrisoners, the new moving starring Hugh Jackman and an impressive ensemble of skilled actors, has several heart-pounding moments. Keeping the audience’s interest for its entire 2-1/2-hour running time, the movie knows how to spin an invigorating yarn, very much in the same light as Criminal Minds or the many police procedurals on television. By the end of the film, it’s hard to buy into all of the plot points, but there’s no denying that Prisoners provides a memorable cinematic experience.

The story involves every parent’s worst nightmare. The daughters of two couples go missing, and several clues point to a strange man who was parked in a van down the street. Keller (Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are hellbent on finding their daughter alive. Ditto for Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard). How these four adults go about their means of discovery is what makes Prisoners such a surprising movie.

Keller is brutish and willing to go into the deep reaches of his inner-darkness to find his daughter. He says that he’ll do anything to find her alive, and rather quickly we come to believe in his promise. There’s redness in his eyes, and his stare never strays from his ultimate goal. Franklin, his friend, is equally as determined but unwilling to use violence to combat violence. These men represent the two extremes of this swinging pendulum: Would you cause harm to save a loved one? To find answers, would you torture someone?

Nancy and Grace are the victims of too much going on at once. Their interest in finding the two girls is never fully explained and feels somewhat extraneous. This is a shame that the motherly side doesn’t receive much respect.

Paul Dano is Alex Jones, the first person who falls on the radar screen of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Alex was in a van parked down the street at the same time the daughters left home. Could he be involved? If Keller believes him to look the part does that mean he’s the guilty party?

Gyllenhaal gives one of his finest performances in the detective role. This police official is an odd combination of nervous ticks and studious work ethic. It doesn’t appear that the character ever sleeps as he works his way through the case, trying to find out what went wrong. He objects to Keller’s insistence on taking matters into his own hands, but he’s equally angry at the possible fate of the two daughters. Watch how Gyllenhaal holds anguish on his face, almost as if there’s something questionable he’s holding back. This is man is troubled by the troubling scenes he needs to investigate on a daily basis.

Director Denis Villeneuve does a fine job of keeping the plot coherent and pulsating with energy. Aaron Guzikowski’s script is marvelously detailed (perhaps too much detailed). Although the story spirals into territory that is far-fetched, there’s something believable behind this horror tale.

Prisoners will keep parents up at night and thinking about what they would do, how far they would go to find a loved one safe and sound.

By John Soltes / Publisher /

  • Prisoners

  • 2013

  • Directed by Denis Villeneuve

  • Written by Aaron Guzikowski

  • Starring Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello and Viola Davis

  • Running time: 153 minutes

  • Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout

  • Rating: ★★★½

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at, among other publications. E-mail him at

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