Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners is a solid, if somewhat preposterous and muddled, mystery thriller. It’s something close in style to Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs — so close, in fact, that it borrows a trick or two from that film. If only it had stuck to that … but it doesn’t. No, Prisoners has a burning need to be “about something,” and everyone involved is determined that the viewer will realize that fact. The problem with that, apart from the ham-fisted histrionics it generates, is that the film itself never knows what to do with the illusion of moral weightiness it insists on dragging in. The premise is sound. Two little girls go missing on Thanksgiving Day. The parents — Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) — are frantic. When Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) releases the only suspect, the simple-minded Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the volatile Keller erupts into active frenzy, attacking Jones as he’s released. During this attack Jones whispers to Keller, “They didn’t cry till I left them” — something no one else hears, or at least will corroborate. It is this that drives Keller to kidnap the young man, imprison him in the crumbling apartment building Keller’s late father owned, and attempt to torture the information out of him. It’s this question of torturing the simple-minded Jones that is supposed to give the film its deeper side, but whether it really deepens the film in any significant way is open to serious debate. Acting-wise, this is one busy movie. The thing is that while all this industrial strength acting is going on, there’s also a pretty engrossing mystery afoot that keeps your attention. As a result, Prisoners manages to be compelling in spite of its overbearing attempts at some kind of profundity.
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