There's much to meditate on in Prisoners, the dark psychological thriller out this Friday starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. The movie could be described as distinctly, deliciously stressful, with its winding mysteries and shocking reveals, its broody atmosphere and consistent aura of foreboding. It excels at all this in spite of a simple enough premise: two families, celebrating together what should be a routine and happy Thanksgiving holiday, are plunged into a waking nightmare when their young daughters are kidnapped in broad daylight.
Jackman plays Keller Dover, the father of one of the kidnapped girls who in a desperate bid to find his daughter, and despite the protestations of an idiosyncratic detective working on the case (Gyllenhaal) takes matters in dealing with the prime suspect into his own hands, vigilante style. While the movie's labyrinthine plot is a huge component in what makes it works, its a film that's as much about its performances as it is about the mystery itself. We have a star-studded cast who all (except for Paul Dano, whose performance here and in the forthcoming 12 Years a Slave proves that his time will surely come) have been nominated for or have won Oscars. And while Dano, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello (as Jackman's wife), and Gyllenhaal are all stellar, by the third act it is clear that what we are watching is the Jackman show - Jackman with his flared nostrils and countless crying sequences (ranging from the single tear rolling down the cheek to the full on snot fest).
What's most striking for me about Jackman's performance is not just how much his scenery-chewing stands out, but how it stands out in such stark contrast contrasts to the performances of the only two major black actors in the film, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Davis has come into prominence in recent years by turning in scene-stealing moments with very little to work with (she famously got her first Oscar nom for just seven minutes on screen in Doubt), and here she is of course excellent, though given considerably less to go on than one might expect.
In an unlikely pairing on paper, she and Howard play Franklin and Nancy Birch, parents to the other little girl kidnapped at the head of the movie, a couple who handle the disappearance of their lost child drastically different to their close friends the Dovers. Where Jackman's Keller Dover basically turns into a slightly insane ball of despair and violence, and his wife (Bello) retreats into a cloud of depression and prescription drugs, the Birch family inhabit a space of quiet suffering, of stoic cooperation with the police, a sort of half-hearted hope that it will all be OK, however improbable that may seem.
The necessity of this contrast is clear, with the film obviously trying to use the differences between the families, who both in the metaphorical and literal sense are black and white, to help the audience begin to answer the complex, shade-of-grey questions presented by the Dover father's increasingly problematic actions. And yet, as engaging and enthralling as those questions are, there's also a nagging feeling that Davis and particularly Howard's characters are somehow underutilized or under-explored. They have so few lines in relation to most of the other main actors that at some points one wonders if they are merely there for Jackman's volatile character to play off of.
This undercurrent to the relationship between the characters may not be totally lost on the filmmakers, though, and certainly not on Howard himself, who in a recent interview spoke to his dialogue and screen time light role. Referencing his character's submissive relationship to Jackman's physically and emotionally domineering Keller, Howard said: "I jokingly refer to my role as the woman in the marriage with an emotionally stronger spouse. The character's arc comes from personal influences in the sense that I grew up in a household with my grandmother, my mom, my great grandmother, and my great, great grandmother.
"...I remember the words of advice from my great, great grandmother who we had until I was 13 years old. Anytime something was going on she would tell me, 'just be still Terry, just be still and wait on God, everything will work itself out.'" For Howard, it was focusing in on this idea of being still that evidently informed his approach to the Prisoners role. "Half of the time, I was looking at Hugh directly in his eyes trying to transfer into his mind just to be still."
So often, especially with black actors like Denzel Washington, Danny Glover, and Samuel L Jackson who have paved the way, the expectations we often have for black male performers are to glide onto the screen with a loud, swaggering, dominating presence that says, behold: this is a leading man. But perhaps what's been done here with Howard in his supporting role alongside Jackman is something far more subtle, perhaps something far more significant. It's hard to tell.
Because while Howard doesn't get to kick ass and take names, he does provide much of the moral and emotional core of what makes Prisoners a bit smarter than some of the other films of this genre. And, there is something refreshing about actually seeing a black actor, especially Howard, playing a role like this - not the world weary police chief or the angry citizen, but someone more understated, more conflicted, less reactionary. What really remains to be seen, and what I'm skeptical of, is if any of that will actually translate, if what Howard has attempted to do with this role will truly resonate, or simply get lost in the din.
Zeba Blay is a Ghanaian-born film and culture writer based in New York. She is a contributor to Huffington Post, Africa Style Daily, and Slant Magazine. She co-hosts the weekly podcast Two Brown Girls, and runs a personal movie blog, Film Memory. Follow her on Twitter @zblay.