Prisoners is a crime thriller with a desire to be much more than that.
Two families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving; as the two younger girls of each family go off to do their own thing in the course of the day, there dawns later the frightening realisation that the girls are missing. A parental search becomes a community event, a police investigation and a big news story. Leads are picked at; suspects rise to the surface and fall away again; one of the parents takes things into his own hands, the rest of the adults get sucked in and things get emotionally, morally and procedurally complex.
It’s graphic and disturbing, recalling and alludes to issues of forced detention, torture, faith and suffering, institutionalised abuse and revenge. It’s beautifully shot – cinematographer Roger Deakins once again displays his characteristically painterly eye for seeing what’s in a frame that may otherwise may not be seen. The composition of shots, the colour palette, the decision to cut or linger all enhance the whole film and allow the different themes to float to the surface. This is a crime thriller with much to say.
Sad to say, though, that I’m not really sure what the film is trying to articulate; and neither does the plot hang together. Either one of these faults would be less of a problem if the other wasn’t also an issue. The plot has significant and problematic holes; the themes are so varied that none are developed sufficiently to be allowed to really speak.
[Possible plot spoiler in next paragraph]
The final motivation, when it comes, is one articulated as revenge on God for suffering experienced. Which is fine – well, of course suffering isn’t fine, but you know what I mean. People suffer, and they do truly and often blame God and then act on that blaming. That’s real and true. It’s so undeveloped here, though. One minute you’re thinking about torture and forced detention; next you have to shift gears totally and connect with a pain so deep it leads to radical vengeance. In shifting gears in such a way there’s grinding and groaning; someone forgot to depress the clutch. So the final motivation, which could and should have been the culmination of two hours of tension and counterpoint, building and meditation becomes more of a … well, shrug.
As a result of this, the plot holes become even more frustrating. You’re left wondering why that character has been abandoned, why that action happened at all, why this lead wasn’t followed sooner … especially when you as viewer stroll to the correct conclusion about an hour early. The film has big theological questions but they’re articulated, ironically for a film about missing children, at primary school level rather than the level of true and deep engagement. I was drawn to think of those who kid themselves they’ve engaged with theology because they’ve read The God Delusion, in reality as deluded as someone like me who thinks they have good biological knowledge when I stopped studying it aged 14. Good actors like Jake Gyllenhaall, Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis and Maria Bello are left trying to breathe life into so many shallow-breathing bodies that by the end they’re the ones in need of resuscitation. All of which means it’s a long two hours.
Other crime thrillers do similar things with much more efficiency and power – consider, for example, Gone Baby Gone or Mystic River; both films which remember to tell a story well and focus on one or two themes. They show Prisoners that less really is more. It’s s a shame to have to say that. Prisoners is a film which should tick all my boxes for thoughtful crime thrillers, as the other two I’ve just mentioned do. That this is so does not make it a bad film; just a disappointing, deflating one – which for me is worse.
I rated this film 6/10 on imdb.com and 3/5 on rottentomatoes.com