By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Allowing an audience to influence a review isn't the way movie critics work but sometimes it shouldn't be dismissed. Especially when unintended laughter and fadeout groans confirm 2 ½ hours of wondering why Prisoners is being hyped as an awards contender.
Thought I was missing something. I guess not.
Prisoners is a methodically grim story of child kidnapping and vigilante torture, extended beyond necessity by short-sighted police work and a cannery's supply of red herrings. It is well acted bunk, led by Hugh Jackman's righteous raging as the father of a missing girl, abducting a suspect (Paul Dano) to pummel and scald a confession from him. If only solving the case and ending this movie sooner was that simple.
Instead, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski heat up cold cases, creating more missing persons of interest than Jake Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki can handle without making a movie-sustaining mistake or two. By the time this labyrinthine plot begins dropping snakes and mazes into the mix, we're all victims of a third degree assault on logic.
Prisoners begins and continues in atmospheric, if heavy-handed fashion, with Keller Dover (Jackman) guiding his son to a deer hunt kill shot by reciting the Lord's Prayer. You know, the one about forgiving those who trespass against us, which Keller won't be doing soon. Prisoners should spend less time lining up plot dominoes to topple later, and more time on Keller's faith and personality conflicting with his brutal actions. Without any guilt or remorse he's a hard character to support, especially after it's clear that Keller's sense of right is wrong.
On a slate gray Thanksgiving Day, Keller's daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and her friend Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) disappear from the neighborhood. A suspicious RV is traced to Alex Jones (Dano), a mentally challenged man soon released from custody to his aunt (Melissa Leo). Keller is convinced Alex took the children but the man-child tells nothing, even after his face is pounded into a KAWS character.
Keller's wife, Grace (Maria Bello), doesn't know but Joy's dad Franklin (Terrence Howard) becomes a reluctant accomplice and the movie's unintended comic relief, making disbelief into a sight gag. His wife, Nancy (Viola Davis), is the lone person making a compassionate move in Prisoners and she gets roughed up for it.
Gyllenhaal has it tougher than anyone, so loaded down with false leads, some roundaboutly turning out to be true, that characterization is limited to a blinking tic and odd tattoos. For a detective who never left a case unsolved, he stumbles into more evidence than he discovers, leaving behind at least one fatal cause for dismissal.
Prisoners is a movie begging to be spoiled, to make clear how needlessly serpentine it is, and how its cheatful twists clunk together. That won't happen here, but I'll bet a large portion of Monday night's audience wouldn't mind.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.