The Birches, Franklin (Terrence Howard), his wife, Nancy (Viola Davis), and daughters Eliza (Zoe Soul) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) have been friends with the Dovers, Keller (Hugh Jackman), his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), his son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and his daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) for years. The families are getting together for Thanksgiving. They live in a relatively small town, so the Dovers walk to the Birch’s house. Even so, when the young girls, Joy and Anna, want to go outside and play, the older kids are made to go with them. While they are out playing, they see an RV that the girls start to play on. The older kids drag the girls from the RV and head home, not wanting to get in trouble with whoever is in the RV.
Anna wants to walk back home with Joy so Joy can help her find her emergency whistle. They sneak off, without getting the older kids. When the parents go looking for the girls later, they are nowhere to be found. The families search both houses and the entire neighborhood, but still cannot find them. The older kids mention the RV, and the police are called.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) responds when the RV is found. When the police arrive, the driver of the RV, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), tries to escape. Kind of. He is apprehended and brought in for questioning. The Birches, Dovers, and half of the state police force scour the woods where the RV was parked for the girls.
Detective Loki does his best to break Alex, but gets no information from him. Alex is a troubled young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old, according to his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), who has raised him since he was young, when both of his parents died in an accident. Keller begs Loki to hold Alex for at least one more day while they try to find the girls.
As the days pass, there is still no sign of the girls. When Alex is released, Keller is convinced that Alex was somehow involved and knows where the girls are. While Loki continues his investigation, Keller, unsatisfied with how slowly things are progressing, and desperate to get his daughter back, decides to take matters into his own hands. He drags a reluctant Franklin into his own brutal vigilante interrogation. Can they get Alex to talk before it is too late for the girls?
Prisoners is really about Hugh Jackman’s character. Most of the rest of the cast are merely ancillary characters in the tale. Not that the other actors don’t do a decent job, but it is really Hugh Jackman who shines in his performance. As a parent, you can feel Keller’s frantic desperation. At no point during the film did I find him drifting out of character.
I was surprised at the underused A-list actors like Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Paul Dano is believable as a disturbed man, knowing how to push the right buttons at the right time. Even if some of his stereotypical behavior seems to just be there to fulfill the stereotype.
One of the things that really bothered me about the film was Jake’s character. He is pictured with neck and knuckle tattoos. I found myself focusing on the knuckle tattoos specifically when they were on-screen. I didn’t know if there was some sort of significance to them. Something that would come back later in the film. I was disappointed. There is no back story to give you any idea of who he is or why he might have them. And there was no mention of their meaning, or some character trait that played a role in the film.
The film is a bit predictable. We had most of it figured out within the first 30-45 minutes of the film. And there were some pretty obvious clues that you knew would mean something later. Apparently, a good part of the audience didn’t pick up on these clues, as there were gasps at the reveal.
Overall, Prisoners is a pretty good movie. The sense of helplessness when something happens to those you try to protect most really comes through. You would do anything possible to bring them home safely. Anything. How far would you go?