If five Oscar nominees lose two young girls in the woods, will their wailing make a sound? That's the key question of Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve's prestigious puffery about a father (Hugh Jackman) and a cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) trying to catch a kidnapper. Prisoners is a dog-whistle for Academy voters keyed to a pitch that screams, "For the love of God, nominate me for something!" It might work, except that a) it makes no sense, and b) it's not from Clint Eastwood, the only director with enough swagger to demand such schlock be taken seriously.
Our setting is a gray Pennsylvania town, the type where most of the houses are held together by cheap aluminum siding, where an ordinary man like Keller (Jackman) can teach his son to hunt in case a hurricane blows civilization away. Keller is a survivalist with six stacked columns of Crisco in his basement and an innate certainty that he can do better than the experts. That includes Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), the soft-spoken crime-solver charged with tracking down Keller's six-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and neighbor girl Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) after they go missing on Thanksgiving afternoon.
Keller admits he isn't the sharpest tool in the shed, but he is the kind of guy who makes a point of keeping all his shed's other tools well-sharpened. Initially, he begs Loki to help him make sense of the facts that don't add up: Why was local weirdo Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a childlike near-mute, parked in an RV by their street? Why did Alex try to escape when questioned by the police? And why can't Loki keep him in custody even though the only evidence Keller has to go on is a glint in Alex's eye? (I'd add another: Where in 2013 did Alex buy his Mark David Chapman glasses, the windshield-sized spectacles that automatically tell people you're a creep?)
Loki brushes him off with police platitudes — "We're considering all possibilities" — that don't even sooth Keller's sleeping-pill-stupefied wife (Maria Bello). He doesn't realize Keller may be the only man in town brave enough — and risky enough — to take matters, er, make that Alex — into his own hands. And fists. And hammers. And homemade torture chambers.
Villeneuve is interested in the raw ugliness of human desperation, and parts of the film get so bleak that it's surprising to realize it's not a remake of something Swedish. But while Prisoners beats Dano into bloody tartare, it still pulls its punches. As soon as he slices open Keller's conscience, Villeneuve panics and tries to shove the meat back inside. Jackman does his damnedest to give Keller a monomaniacal conviction — he does hollow-eyed agony better than the rest of Hollywood's muscle men — but neither we nor Villeneuve ever buy him as anything but a blue-collar hero. The part needs either a real hothead, a Michael Shannon-type, or a geek who can't believe he's breaking the Geneva Convention. Instead, Prisoners tries to sway our sympathies toward the father of the other missing girl (Terrence Howard), who simply stands around Keller's makeshift interrogation room second-guessing his tactics while changing in and out of his nice slacks so they don't get spotted with blood. He's useless.
Prisoners wants to believe in an old-fashioned honor code. It's so macho that every female character is kidnapped, drugged, or sidelined to the margins of the plot — even Viola Davis as Howard's wife — yet so in touch with the pressures of machismo that Jackman, Gyllenhaal, Dano, and Howard compete for the most close-ups while crying. In their own way, each of these guys is pressured to do right by his own responsibilities, be they familial, career, survival, or civic. But when their personal complexities start getting in the way of screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski's plot twists, he and Villeneuve just throw away the parts that don't fit. They want a film that looks good, blood and weeping scenes and stuff, and don't care if it means hollowing out the story's internal logic. After two and a half hours of froth, the final product is as grandiose and flimsy as a 12-foot sandcastle.
Only Gyllenhaal recognizes this is B+ fluff. He plays Loki with a dogged practicality that cuts through the histrionics. He's a cop who's seen bad stuff before, and knows he'll see it again. Gyllenhaal has the face of a thug angel, and the costumers have further roughed him up with a neck tattoo and a small cross inked on the web of his left hand — hints of a past life that only merits a snatch of a sentence when Loki mentions surviving a Christian boys' home where he learned to hate priests.
He's got a secret. Hell, everyone in the film has a secret. But ultimately, this is just an overbearing bluff, a well-acted red herring that isn't interested in the whys of its melodramatic whats. Torn between making sense and arguing that the world itself makes no sense, Prisoners is a captive of its own ambitions.