The subject matter of the movie “Prisoners”– parents desperately searching for their kidnapped little girls– is so potent that it requires a strong, sure director to maintain control. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (“Incendies”), in his first Hollywood feature film, is mostly successful but along the way he is sorely tested by emotionally charged social, religious and moral themes struggling to break free of the excruciating situation and gallop off in the direction of political metaphor, propaganda, violence, or sermonizing.
Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a strong, self-reliant, religious man whose six-year-old daughter disappears while walking in their neighborhood with a friend. Dover’s wife, played by Maria Bello, becomes so distraught that she soon sedates herself into helplessness. Their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) whose daughter also disappears, look for a different path out of their nightmare.
As the hours tick by, the parents lose patience with police detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) and begin to take matters into their own hands. The distraught father yells at the cop, “Two little girls have to be worth more than whatever little rule you have to break.” Loki does not agree, and the race is on, to see whose tactics will be most effective, and whose tactics are morally justifiable. Jackman makes clear he is willing to do anything to get his daughter back, including torturing a suspect: “He’s not a person anymore, he stopped being a person when he took on our daughter.”
Prisoners is a dark, tense crime drama with an excellent cast and some important topical themes. It is not for the faint of heart. Director Villeneuve says that he hopes his film will inspire audiences to debate these issues “long after the movie ends,” and in this he surely succeeds. There are issues to debate regarding the treatment of the mentally ill, civil liberties, law enforcement, self-reliance, and morals in modern society, and especially the ultimate question of whether the end justifies the means. The movie has some excellent, artful moments, cleverly filmed with flair and style. However, there are also moments when the movie gets carried away with itself, losing its sense of proportion, and taking already extreme situations a notch or two beyond credibility.
Parents should know that this story concerns kidnapping and child abuse, extensive violence (including torture and shooting, alcohol, substance abuse to deal with stress, and constant very strong language.
Family discussion: When is it appropriate for people to take the law into their own hands? Who is right? Who does the director think is right? How does this story relate to issues in geopolitical conflict?
If you like this, try: “Ransom”