From the time its first trailer popped up, Prisoners essentially laid all of its cards on the table, at least in terms of the meat of things. For a story about a child abduction, it posed only one question: how far is too far when searching for your kidnapped loved one? While Liam Neeson may have answered the question in his own way in 2008’s Taken, this film takes a bit of a deeper look at things, focusing on the events through the eyes of one of the kidnapped girls’ father as well as through the eyes of the detective in charge of the case. While each man’s goal may be the same, and their fervor comparable, it is the differences in their methods that bring that ethical question to the forefront: how far is too far?
Of course the most intriguing viewpoint is that of Hugh Jackman, whose daughter is kidnapped, along with her friend, the daughter of neighbor Terrence Howard. Movies about kidnapping are of course nothing new, nor is the idea of someone “taking the law into their own hands,” so to speak. What separates Jackman’s performance, and Prisoners as a whole, is the grounded way in which his struggle is portrayed. While Jackson’s methods may have been extreme and brutal, what made them interesting was, quite simply, their lack of success. As each day passed without answers, doubt grew not only in the fate of the missing girls, but in Jackson’s hope of getting answers from his captive suspect.
The counterpoint to Jackman’s vigilante justice was found in the cases detective, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. With an almost unbelievable passion for solving the case and finding the missing girls, Gyllenhaal doesn’t necessarily seek to show us a perfect, by the books way of doing things, but rather provides an anchor to the proceedings. While Jackman’s frustration results in more manic desperation, Gyllenhaal continues to grind away at following leads and hunting for clues. What keeps this dichotomy from becoming another cliched Hollywood look at right and wrong is that the filmmakers recognize that while the question may be a simple one, ethical questions rarely have right answers or wrong answers.
At it’s heart, Prisoners is a thriller, and a thriller is only as good as its suspense, and most importantly, it’s finale. While the moral and ethical questions posed are explored quite well, it is also important to note that Prisoners is also quite successful in its thrills. Occasionally the twists and turns do feel like they’re starting to simply drag us along for the sake of generating suspense, the tension is always strongly built through exceptional performances, camerawork, and direction. The payout did leave me feeling a bit short changed, but the twist was still performed very well, keeping me on the edge of my seat. Prisoners may have been treading on well known grounds, but its fresh perspective combined with exceptional filmmaking created a film most certainly worth taking a look at.