The 400-Word Review: Prisoners

By Sean Collier

September 23, 2013

Wait, what just happened on Breaking Bad?

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“A mediocre gift in a handsome package” is an obvious metaphor, admittedly, but that’s precisely what we have with Prisoners. The drama from Denis Villeneuve — the acclaimed French-Canadian filmmaker behind the Oscar-nominated Incendies, delivering his first English-language feature — has much to commend, and is easily captivating; on reflection, though, one can’t help but notice that Prisoners doesn’t quite add up.

Keller (Hugh Jackman) is a broadly-drawn paranoid, stocking up (and praying for) the apocalypse with his high-strung family. His circle of friends begins and ends with neighbors Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis); when the families get together for Thanksgiving, young daughters Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) run around outside, as an aging RV sits ominously nearby. Within the first reel, the kids are missing and Keller is starting to lose it.

The grownups — also including Maria Bello as Keller’s wife, Grace — fall into stock roles as twitchy Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) tries to corral them and locate the girls. The instantly-abused suspect in the RV, developmentally disabled Alex (Paul Dano), turns out to be innocent; Keller doesn’t buy it. (All of this is in the preview, by the way.)


The atmospheric presentation, with Villeneuve at the helm, adds gravitas and intrigue to a story ready-made to hook attention. And clichéd though the characters may be, they’re vividly played by a game cast; Jackman in particular commits to a tough gig.

When it comes time for the story to stop branching out and start resolving, however, things begin to fall apart. It’s difficult to get into the problems here without spoilers, but among the issues: unnecessarily cruel treatment of several characters; elements introduced to up the creepiness without adding anything; key plot points glossed over or too-quickly explained; and, yes, stereotyping. You’ll be saying lots of sentences beginning with the phrase, “Yeah, but why would...” to your filmgoing companions.

It’s a shame, because even a simpler story better told would’ve made Prisoners a thorough success; again, the presentation is stellar. Without a satisfactory destination, though, the journey grows tiresome; this is doubly so given the film’s 153-minute running time. (All that movie, and several main characters were still underwritten.) The many strengths of Prisoners make it worth seeing, and qualify it as a commendable effort; its significant flaws, however, mean that no one will be calling it a favorite anytime soon.

Sean Collier is the Associate Editor of Pittsburgh Magazine and a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association. Read more from Sean at



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