“He’s not a person anymore. No, he stopped being a person when he took our daughters.”
I don’t think Jake Gyllenhaal ever had a complete decent into shittyness and rom com world that he needed to be redeemed from. But after a lot of early critical and box office success, he seemed to be in the wilderness for a while. In the last few years though, whether by choice or necessity, he’s made a lot of really interesting choices in the roles he’s taken, and his acting bona fides seem more solid than ever. Recently, last year, he was showered with praise for his creepy as shit turn in Nightcrawler. But I think the first time I noticed hearing rumblings of this new, indie, alternative Jake Gyllenhaal, was when he made Prisoners.
Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) are having Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbours Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis). Their collective four kids go for a walk around the neighbourhood, and when the two youngest girls (one from each family) don’t return, Keller’s teenaged son remembers them playing around a rundown old RV. With the RV now nowhere to be seen, the police are called and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the case.
The RV is soon found and its owner, the mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is quickly dismissed by police as the culprit. They believe he in no way has the mental capacity to have pulled off the kidnapping and cleaned up all traces of it. Refusing to believe that, Keller convinces Franklin that they need to take the law into their own hands if they’re ever going to find their daughters.
On the periphery, but obviously tied up somehow, even if the connections aren’t so obvious, are Alex’s aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo) and local priest, Father Patrick Dunn (Len Cariou). All of these people populate a world where secrets, lies and denials mean no one is completely innocent. Even if they didn’t commit the crimes they’re accused of, you get the feeling they’ve done other things just as bad.
Prisoners is a super intense, super anxiety inducing, super effective thriller. And usually, thriller is a genre I have zero interest in. Not only is my appreciation of the genre a surprise, the performance from Hugh Jackman is too. I’m not saying I thought he was bad actor before now. In fact, I really like him. But he’s normally in movies that let him go big, broad and a just a little fabulous. But here, he’s quiet, he’s brooding (in a real way, not in a Wolverine comic book way), and he’s even a little schlubby (if Hugh Jackman can be schlubby).
On paper, Prisoners sounds a lot like the Israeli Big Bad Wolves. I’m not saying one is a rip off of the other, but they both involve missing girls, a prime suspect who the police let go, and a father deciding it’s up to him to do what the police couldn’t. But here’s the difference, and the reason why I think Prisoners is the much better movie. Big Bad Wolves gets to the vigilante stuff in record time, so it can spend the majority of its running time leering at torture.
Prisoners is much more concerned with how Keller comes to his decision, and how he convinces himself that he’s doing the right thing. And that’s the interesting and entertaining bit in a movie like this. Not the increasingly inventive and brutal ways to commit torture.