A brilliant marketing campaign, claiming an unguessable twist ending, brought millions of moviegoers to see just what that finale would be in Prisoners, the newest crime thriller from director Denis Villenueve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski. Heralding a return to great thrillers with A-list actors, this film proves three major things to even the most jaded of cinophiles: Sometimes Academy Award-winning (and nominated) actors and actresses truly are as great as the critics would have the world believe, sometimes a miscast actor or actress can ruin an exceptional movie, and the ending, quite literally, is everything to a thriller and its perceived success. This movie succeeds where others would have failed due to a series of complex character sketches intertwined with a seemingly simple enough whodunit story that takes parents and non-parents alike to their darkest recesses. But even though this should have been the movie of the year (so far), it has one major flaw. One might even suggest it is a fatal one.
The lead actor, Hugh (X-Men, Les Miserables) Jackman, is completely and utterly miscast. His acting is overly dramatic, never believable, and quite honestly, a constant painful reminder that this is, in fact, just a movie. But he does not completely ruin the film. Great supporting roles from Jake (Brokeback Mountain, Love & Other Drugs) Gyllenhaal, Paul (Being Flynn, Ruby Sparks) Dano, Melissa (The Fighter, Oblivion) Leo, Viola (The Help, Doubt) Davis, Terrence (Crash, The Ledge) Howard, and Maria (Beautiful Boy, ER) keep this character-driven mystery going, despite the miscasting of the film's lead actor. Even though it is a small role, this is perhaps Davis' finest work to date. Dano's performance is hauntingly original. The quirks and eccentricities of Gyllenhaal's character are so subtle that the average moviegoer might miss them altogether, but the veteran critic or lifelong movie fan will find him not only intriguing, but downright mesmerizing.
So don't let the film's lead detract you from seeing this otherwise excellent film. The ending will give you nightmares. The performances will seem too realistic for several people in the theater, but only because realism, taken to this level, is uncomfortable. There is never a moment where the film seems boring or repetitive, and quite honestly, if given another chance to re-film the entire thing with another main character, this would have been not only the best film of the year, but possibly one of the most heartfelt and emotional thrillers in the last decade. It just goes to show how important casting can be. Especially if the filmmakers' goals include rising above the genre. A mixed review for a complicated movie with a nearly fatal flaw, it is still highly recommendable.