Prisoners (2013)

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Prisoners (2013)


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaaul, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terence Howard


“They didn’t cry until I left them.”Alex


PRISONERS’ is a crime thriller that asks tough fraking questions.

A tightly bound domestic nightmare that constricts around its subject with suffocating tension before taking its intense but familiar set up to a bleaker place. PRISONERS thrives on murkier morality than the genre usually dares, even when it  loosens its grip with an uneven final quarter the emotional devastation and raging desperation of earlier scenes resonates.

Prisoners film stillIt’s Thanksgiving Day in an outlying Philadelphia suburb. The Dover and The Birch families are celebrating the holiday. Impromptu laughter, merriment and sax playing fill the air. The four children play while the parents unwind. Dinner is served. After the meal as attentions are swayed six year old Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and her friend Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) head outside the house.

SPOILERS BELOW: The rest of this review contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.

Reported missing after a frantic search, the police are called and Detective Loki (Jake Gylenhaaal) methodically investigates soon discovering clues to a possible abduction. A prime suspect is apprehended, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a troubled, mentally unstable loner “with the IQ of approximately a 10 year old.” Processed and interrogated, a shaken Alex is released due to lack of evidence and the critical first 48 hours begin ticking by. The two families struggle to cope with the tragic reality,  the police continue to hit dead ends. Everyone frantically hunts for their own answers.

“Someone has to make him talk or they’re gonna die!” Keller

Destined to be a DVD sleeper hit this abduction nail biter had me invested on several levels for the majority of its running time. There is a density to the material that early on reminded me of the gritty Dennis Lehane adaptations GONE BABY GONE and MYSTIC RIVER but the film soon became its own animal.

“In contradiction and paradox, you can find truth.” – Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve

Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES) achieves an intimate realism that is made more uncomfortable by Roger Deakins (MILLER’S CROSSING) observant low lit cinematography. Tiny beads of hope struggle through the darkness of Deakin’s visual palette, his camera refusing to judge what it witnesses.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski ‘s (CONTRABAND)  compelling script examines psychological walls, the labyrinth of actions that inform externalized behavior. Every character is trapped in their own perception dictated by circumstances outside of their control. Frustratingly the harrowing screenplay loses its teeth in the final 30 minutes once a non committal resolution plays safe. From this point the screenplay rushes to resolve threads, some unneeded exposition removes ambiguity and exposes fractures in the plot.

The unnerving way the gnawing anguish manifests in each character. The crumbling family clawing to survive, the obsessive cop relentlessly pursuing the truth and suspects pulled into the labyrinth of dramatic consequence are all gripping in delivery.The committed performances display the endless hues, the coping mechanisms of caged desperation.

As the struggling, independent working class father of two, Keller Dover, (Hugh Jackman) is a conflicted portrait of raging frustration. The unconditional love of a child is a fundamental human instinct and Keller isn’t one dimensional vigilantism as a heroic fist pump. He’s an examination of the ethical lines we would be willing to cross for protection of offspring. His tormented monster is far more barbed and terrifying than anything the actor ever channeled as Wolverine. The full complexity of misdirected aggression stemming from the purest intentions, the question of how far to go for the greater good is left lingering. What is justifiable violence? Personally, as a non-believer this ranks alongside THE FOUNTAIN and THE PRESTIGE as Jackman’s most interesting role to date.

Blending his ZODIAC dick with END OF WATCH cop Gyllenhaal’s (DONNIE DARKO) Detective is an enigma. A back story hinted at with a Masonic ring, obsessive eye ticks and a flawless record of captures gives the actor plenty of room to add his own unique substance and it makes for another modulated Gylenhaal portrayal.

Film Review PrisonersI don’t know what it is about the always convincing Paul Dano, (LOOPER) he defies easy categorization, but he’s idiosyncratic enough to label as a young Crispin Glover or even Richard Widmark. Dano’s careful molding of a lost soul forever trapped in the tormented maze of his past is one that deserves attention. Similar to THERE WILL BE BLOOD the story has to grow into his character.

Maria Bello’s (HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) crumbling wife and mother Grace Dover is an appropriately strained performance that had me feeling her hopeless suffering. In the part of Joy’s father Terence Howard (THE HUNTING PARTY) is an ideal counterweight to Jackman’s externalized Keller, Franklin Birch is a man who can only go so far and Howard plays him with earnest conflict.

Melissa Leo (THE FIGHTER) as Holly Jones, Alex’s long suffering outcast mother also develops with the larger plot, it takes skill to build a part that way. Now it’s not that Viola Davis (DOUBT) is weak as the supportive, comparatively level headed Nancy Birch, she has just as much naturalism as the rest of the cast, it’s that her part is minimally written where most others have several dimensions.

Benefiting from me knowing very little about the film other than some enthusiastic recommendations from trusted sources I went into PRISONERS with low expectations. That I may have ignored this film altogether based on its unremarkable trailer may be telling of why it didn’t generate the expected audience or awards buzz. I’m conflicted by the final moments. Though it doesn’t restate the obvious fate of the characters and saves us having to see it, I would have preferred a less Hollywood (read: neat) ending after such an effecting first hour and a half. Those that know me know that I despise a lack of follow through. Don’t build an authentic atmosphere, make a dark promise then have it conveniently castrated. That’s fine for tongue in cheek spectacle, escapist entertainment or gutless Oscar bait, but NOT serious fraking drama. Complaints aside these flaws didn’t undermine the integrity of the well crafted film and it still accomplishes what it needs in order to take this tale into thoughtful place that doesn’t offer easier answers.

 It’s best to go in blind, but here is a teaser for PRISONERS

One comment to Prisoners (2013)

  • Frakking Favourite 25 Films of 2015  says:

    […] than one occasion. Powerful and important filmmaking that again proves Denis Villenuvue (ENEMY, PRISONERS) is not so quietly emerging as a consummate craftsman whose every release is a must see. As Emily […]

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