A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that Prisoners is a brutally intense crime thriller/revenge film starring Hugh Jackman. Characters make unthinkable choices to find their missing kids, and there's frequent bloody violence. In addition to the central kidnapping of two little girls, people are shot and killed (or kill themselves), beaten to an unrecognizable pulp, and tortured in various ways. One man shoots himself in the head, and a police officer must shoot a suspect. There's frequent strong language ("f--k," "s--t," "a--hole"), as well as excessive alcohol use by adults and some use of pills and other drugs. The movie's disturbing themes and unflinching violence make it best suited for adults and possibly some very mature teens.
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What's the story?
PRISONERS follows Pennsylvanian carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who strongly believes in hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. And that's just what happens on Thanksgiving, while Keller and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), celebrate the holiday with their neighbors, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). After dinner, Keller's daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and Franklin's little girl, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), walk back to the Dovers' house alone, even though they were told to ask their teen siblings to accompany them. Unable to find the girls, Keller's son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), mentions a suspicious, idling RV the kids encountered earlier in the day. Once the cops are involved, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds the RV and its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally disabled adult with no criminal record. Alex is released, but Keller is convinced that the young man knows more than he's letting on. Keller manages to kidnap and imprison Alex and then convinces a horrified Franklin that if they don't torture Alex for information, they'll never find their girls.
Is it any good?
Prisoners is a thinking audience's revenge film -- that is, if moviegoers (particularly parents) can stomach the subject matter. It's long, disturbing, and nerve-wracking to watch, but the performances, the imagery, and the fabulous cinematography (courtesy of 10-time Oscar nominee Roger Deakins) make it worth sitting through all of the angst, violence, and horror. Jackman is unforgettable as Keller, a God-fearing carpenter who can do so much with his hands -- including beating an unarmed, mentally disabled younger man until he's no longer recognizable. These are the things he believes a father must do when the police fail to see what his gut is telling him is true.
In contrast to Jackman's Keller is Howard's Franklin, a father who doesn't love his daughter any less but doesn't want to bloody his hands (though he's willing to stand by and watch). This thriller has lots of twists and turns for suspense fans, but its true artistry is in the sometimes-sickening character development, which reveals the depths to which people will go when their children's safety is on the line, when their faith is in tatters, and when all hope is nearly lost. The two-and-a-half-hour runtime isn't quite merited, but French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has woven a gripping, if terrifying, tale that explores the heart and actions of a well-intentioned but extreme vigilante.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the popularity of revenge movies, particularly ones in which fathers take justice into their own hands to save their kids. Why do these movies speak to audiences? Do the ends ever justify the means?
What is Prisoners saying about morality and justice? How is Keller's vigilantism depicted? Is he intended to be a sympathetic character?
The two fathers are portrayed as foils: One is willing to do something illegal/immoral for the sake of finding his daughter, while the other doesn't want to cross any lines. Which one did you find more believable? Does the film "judge" either man?
Discuss the role of gender in the story. Which characters acted like stereotypical men or women? Which characters twisted the traditional associations with a particular gender?
- In theaters: September 20, 2013
- On DVD or streaming: December 17, 2013
- Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Studio: Warner Bros.
- Genre: Thriller
- Run time: 146 minutes
- MPAA rating: R
- MPAA explanation: disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
- Last updated: March 16, 2020
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