dir. Denis Villeneuve
Release Date: Sep 20, 13
Prisoners is a film at odds with itself, the sort of movie that’s handled with such virtuosity at certain points that its shortcomings are amplified. It’s at once a Hitchcockian thriller taken to horrifying extremes, a treatise on the ethical implications of torture and violent interrogation, a Fincher-esque journey into the horrors of quiet locales (as well as a notable throwback to his own Zodiac), and a coming-out party for director Denis Villeneuve as a filmmaker of considerable skill. It’s also the sort of lengthy (over 2.5 hours), robust sort of filmmaking that’s become rarer and rarer at the studio level. For its faults, Prisoners is a film that viewers will have a lot to say about, and there’s always pleasure to be derived from that.
One of Prisoners’ earliest pleasures is the realization that the film’s promotional materials haven’t really given anything away. Virtually everything in the film’s trailers and commercials comes in the first 45 minutes or so, leaving quite a bit of mystery on the table. One quiet Thanksgiving in suburban Pennsylvania, the Dovers and the Birches get together for a family meal. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a survivalist trying to make ends meet with his carpentry business to support his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their two children. Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) have a daughter near equal age to Keller and Grace’s. At some point after dinner, their daughters disappear. The suspect is the childlike, stunted Alex (Paul Dano), whose RV the children were seen playing on earlier. Because of Alex’s seeming mental disability, he’s released to his aunt (Melissa Leo), which sends Keller down a dark path of abduction in an effort to find his daughters in time. Also on the case is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who’s never failed to solve a crime but finds himself ensconced in a labyrinth of violence as time goes on.
To reiterate: There’s a lot happening in Prisoners. As Grace slips further and further into drug-induced catatonia, Keller’s mania becomes ever more fervent. Jackman delivers one of the film’s two great performances here, doing career-high work as a devout man with a history of serious trauma going to severe, horrifying lengths to not only save his daughters, but justify his actions by way of produced results. It’s a measure of how good Jackman is that when his actions turn truly sadistic, Keller isn’t allowed either judgment or vindication. Though Villeneuve is clearly making a statement about the hopelessness of vengeance as a means to an end, the film simply follows Keller into the void. Sometimes this comes at the expense of other players in the story (Howard and Davis are ultimately given little more to do than wring their hands in guilt and weep consistently in response), but Jackman’s work is every bit as primal as it is empathetic.
The other great performance here is Gyllenhaal’s, which expands on his work in Zodiac and absorbs a bit of Robert Downey Jr.’s in that film as well. As Loki, Gyllenhaal adds a few new shades to his body of work as an actor, starting off as a disaffected bastard and slowly withering away under pressure as the film proceeds. For every lead Loki finds, there’s ultimately another dead end, and his compulsion to solve the case often comes more out of a place of ego than of human decency. At the same time, he lends Loki a sense of isolation that beautifully reflects the numb, bleak film around him. Despite being saddled with some of Prisoners’ more absurd moments (one can’t roll their eyes enough at the moment when Loki’s fit of desk-destroying rage leads him to a key clue), Gyllenhaal functions as the film’s relative true moral center to great results.
Another note on those absurd moments: if there’s one facet of Prisoners that renders it a capably made thriller instead of a great one, it’s the simple fact that Prisoners doesn’t know what the phrase “on the nose” means. The film has a nasty habit of bluntly underlining its themes that takes away from some of its resonant moments. At one point, while sitting in their driveway, Howard and Davis have the unenviable task of explaining Jackman’s character arc and its implications in a few sentences. There are several of these moments during Prisoners, when you wish that Villeneuve would let the horrorshow of paranoia and fear speak for itself instead of grabbing you by the lapels and demanding to know if you understand the movie. In particular, a late character revelation doesn’t come close to attaining the jaw-dropping status it deserves because of the great pains the film takes to set it up throughout.
Even if Prisoners comes up a bit short, it’s still a thoroughly engaging movie. Above the performances, Villaneuve’s work here deserves considerable credit. Though a bit rushed in the beginning (the film skips a lot of character groundwork under the umbrella of “Kids got kidnapped, so of course this would happen”), Villeneuve quickly rights the ship when it’s time for the film to start negotiating its endless maze of escalating terrors. The cold, sterile winter aesthetic that Prisoners is steeped in keeps anything from coming off as overly sensationalized, instead painting a stark, gothic portrait of quiet evil. In this world, vengeance begets more vengeance, and the only victims are the most defenseless. Those playing the latter role might change frequently throughout the film, to varied results, but Villeneuve nevertheless offers an immaculately shot, prescient commentary on the many definitions of evil. If only the whole of Prisoners could have kept that in sight.