I think we can all agree that violence against children is pretty terrible; if not, do not read any further and seek help immediately. Filmmakers have often used the child-in-peril setup to tell revenge stories; no punishment seems too extreme on those who cause the innocent to suffer.
Denis Villeneuve directed ‘Incendies’ (which was on my Top 10 of 2011) and he has now created another masterpiece. ‘Prisoners’ is one of the most intense moviegoing experiences I’ve ever had – I will never forget this movie.
Two neighboring western Pennsylvania families get together for Thanksgiving dinner. The Dovers: father Keller (Hugh Jackman) and mother Grace (Maria Bello) visit the Birches: dad Franklin (Terrence Howard) and mom Nancy (Viola Davis). After dinner, as the adults are chatting and the teenagers are watching television, the two young girls – Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) – go outside. Time passes and they don’t return. The parents frantically search the two houses, run up and down the streets calling out their daughters’ names. The girls don’t turn up so they call the police. We then meet Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal); the initial clues point to a suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) – an adult with the mind of a 10 year old, but there is no hard evidence to charge him. Keller, the now-enraged, grief-stricken father goes to extreme measures to find and save his young daughter.
“He is not a person” Keller says of the man he believes to be responsible for the abduction of his young daughter and her friend. He believes what he says; this honorable family man will resort to torture and contemplate murder. He takes Alex to an abandoned building, beats him to a bloody pulp and locks him in a makeshift cell where scalding and freezing waters severely burn/freeze the occupant. Does Keller believe he will be able to get an answer out of Alex? Or is this just some form of rough justice? The other girl’s parents believe Keller is reacting irrationally – “We’re not going to help you but we won’t stop you either.” says Viola Davis’ character. Keller can’t understand why they’re failing to act – he views it as a sign of weakness.
But, ‘Prisoners’ isn’t a straight-forward revenge thriller. There are complications at every corner – and the uncertainty with the direction of the plot makes the experience all the more devastating.
Alex seems mentally unstable, there is a dead body in an elderly priest’s basement, and there is a dude with a haunted look and nervous mannerisms who shows up at a vigil with a stuffed animal – there are moments that are truly creepy and frightening. Though not exactly a horror movie, ‘Prisoners’ stands alongside ‘The Conjuring’ in terms of genuine scares; much of what transpires is suggested and little is seen – our imagination taps into some deep fears.
And while the movie also works as a whodunit, Denis Villeneuve is more interested in establishing creepy atmospherics and mood. Every scene in the film is permeated with a creeping sense of dread, a sense that something sinister lies beneath the surface and those bad things may turn worse at any moment. ‘Prisoners’ is every bit as grim as Mr.Villeneuve’s last picture ‘Incendies’; he appears to have a keen interest on philosophical/biblical themes – the nature of good and evil, faith, and fallen belief. Keller recites the Lord’s Prayer prior to committing acts of violence; we see crucifixes dangling from rear view mirrors. The name of the missing girl is Joy and her mother’s name is Grace.
Even when the crimes are stated and the criminals revealed, that sense of dread remains over the snowy landscape. The expressive qualities of the picture are in part due to the always excellent cinematographer Roger A Deakins (best known for his work on the films of the Coen Brothers and Sam Mendes); a scene where Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters tails Hugh Jackman (the color palette consisting of dark grey and blue) shows rain transitioning into snow – perhaps inspired from Mr.Villeneuve’s hometown of Montreal.
What viewers may forget as they exit the theater is that the entire film takes place over the course of a single week. Most of us will feel as if it were longer – the movie expertly illustrates how slowly the moving hands of a clock rotate during moments of crisis. Few filmmakers working today can employ this level of discipline without feeling the need to punctuate such long quiet stretches with moments of action. It’s shot in such an intimate way that you are with these characters discovering pieces of the puzzle as they are; and (if you get as involved with the movie as I did), you will be startled from time to time, crush your popcorn into little bits and realize that you shouldn’t crush your popcorn because you don’t want to distract Loki or Keller from their investigation.
Mr.Villeneuve has always been able to draw amazing performances from his cast and ‘Prisoners’ is no exception. This is the performance of Hugh Jackman’s career – it’s solidly grounded and persuasively intense. Friends of mine have complained about the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal twitches a lot in this movie; whatever – his character is strongly written. His relationship to the kidnapping is on a professional level, but it has clearly impacted his personal life because it seems nonexistent; the only social conversation he has is with a waitress at a Chinese restaurant where he talks about the Chinese Zodiac; he also has Zodiac signs tattooed on his knuckles (interestingly enough, he starred in David Fincher’s ‘Zodiac’ in 2007). The performances from the rest of the cast are uniformly excellent.
‘Prisoners’ is a white-knuckle masterpiece of a thriller – it is an unforgettable experience. Just as Mr.Villeneuve’s ‘Incendies’ was on my Best Of list a couple of years ago, ‘Prisoners’ will certainly be on my Top 10 of 2013. Since many of you haven’t seen ‘Incendies’, I suggest giving it a rent. And see ‘Prisoners’. And maybe an animated Disney film to compensate for all of the unsavory material afterwards. QED.