Child abduction has become one of the great modern fears, especially magnified in an age of rolling news, where desperate parents and shocked, hushed neighbourhoods can be beamed right into our living rooms. It has become loaded with its own stock characters, torn from the headlines, not least of which the shadowy and sinister abductors, but also a playbook of police procedure and, as any real case unfurls, a web of whispers, rumour and paranoia about what may or may not have happened. Prisoners sets out to make a thriller, and morality tale, out of this terrible, dark event, to treat it with gravity and respect, but at the same time interweave a slightly more florid conspiracy thriller. In fairness to it, it's mostly successful.
So, lets start with the good. The cast is excellent across the board - Jackman as the gruff, working-class everyman, Gyllenhaal as the twitchy, close-to-his-chest lead detective. Terrance Howard is Jackman's freind, more comfortable and less initially angry, and Paul Dano rounds out the headliners as the initial suspect. The women in the cast largely get short shrift, as the focus is, in part on a macho need to be doing something as the clock ticks down, which is a shame; macho dramas about troubled masculinity are ten-a-penny at the moment the long-form TV dramas like True Detective or Breaking Bad have the space to do it better justice.
The best stretch of the film is by the middle, where the characters move around each other without ever really engaging properly. There remains a gulf between the families, and the police, a gap of trust into which the moral dilemmas of the film start to seep in. It's smart to retain a sense of the perspective of each individual, how they can't see what the other have and how their actions are dominated by events that no-one else was party to. What would you do? the film seems to want to ask, and it's a good question, smartly phrased, although in fairness I do think Jackman jumps to the kidnapping and torturing a little to quickly. But then, it is careful to set him up as a man with a black-and-white worldview and a lot of repressed anger.
Where the film staggers however, is it's resolutions. There is a beat about 20 minutes from the end that made me think that there is an earlier iteration of this film where that happened a lot earlier, and it was maybe once less thoughtful and more running around. I think it's better this way, because the final running around and resolutions, whilst not without merit, at a little too daft for me and maybe a grey-er resolution to the moral questions would have been better.Its a handsomely shot film, too, lots of greys and blues to tie into the oppressive, wintry air. Really, there is a lot to like, it's just falls short at the last couple of hurdles, which I guess is why it ended up an also-ran after all.