Review: 'Prisoners' a harrowing journey into dark depths
Published: Friday, September 20, 2013 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 19, 2013 at 4:18 p.m.
Before diving into “Prisoners,” let's take a moment to salute the brave studio executive who decided a slow-burning mood piece about child kidnapping, torture and mental illness was worth a gamble. That takes guts.
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard
This is worth noting because “Prisoners” is unbelievably hard to watch; the subject matter and the relentlessly punishing style of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve will leave you emotionally and physically battered by the time you leave the theater. But Villeneuve, writer Aaron Guzikowski and the movie's cast are fearless in their willingness to follow the movie into its heart of darkness, and the result is an incredible feat of execution that leaves a strong, if disturbing impression.
Aside from some very late, slightly ill-conceived plot distractions, “Prisoners” tells a simple, straightforward story. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family are at Thanksgiving dinner at the home of his friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) when their two daughters leave the house to go look for a lost emergency whistle. When the two girls fail to return, the family begins a frantic search, and when that fails they turn to the police.
The hunt for the girls is headed up by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), and suspicion immediately falls on Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whose RV was seen near where the girls disappeared. Jones draws more suspicion when he attempts to flee from the police, but at the same time he doesn't appear to have the mental capacity to pull off a double kidnapping; Loki says Alex has “the IQ of a 10-year-old,” and Alex's aunt (Melissa Leo) insists he's harmless.
At this point the movie diverges, splitting its time between Loki's efforts to find the girls and taking an unflinching look at what the kidnappings do to the girls' families. While Loki's story keeps the plot moving and provides a small fragment of hope, Villeneuve and Guzikowski are much more interested in the toll the kidnapping takes on the families, especially Keller.
Keller, who has built a survivalist bunker in his basement and had a philosophy of self-reliance drilled into him by his father, proves incapable of waiting for the police to do their work, so he takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Alex. He drags Alex to a run-down apartment building he owns, then relentlessly tortures him with Franklin's help, even as Loki uncovers evidence that Alex may not have kidnapped the girls.
The facet of “Prisoners” that will garner the most immediate attention is Jackman's performance. The toxic combination of grief, anguish and violence within Keller that Jackman portrays is something that he's never even hinted at in his previous roles. As Keller delivers blow after blow to Alex, it becomes clear that even if he really thinks Alex knows something, the beatings are more his way of coping than any actual attempt at finding his daughter.
Jackman's performance is the most notable, but the whole cast does excellent work here. Gyllenhaal has the thankless role of playing the guy following the rules in the search for the missing girls, but he makes it clear that Loki is haunted in his own way by the case. Dano spends most of the movie being pummeled and screaming in pain, but he does a good job of it, and before his character is kidnapped he makes for an intriguing mix of guilelessness and sinister undertones.
Villeneuve's approach to Guzikowski's script is what really makes the movie work, though. The violence is very graphic (DO NOT take your kids to this), but it never crosses the boundary into exploitation; Villeneuve refuses to give the audience that release, and it forces the viewer to really think about whether Keller's actions are justified or not. Villeneuve also effectively uses slow camera movements and long takes to build the tension to excruciating levels; it creates a sense of predatory watching that's deeply disconcerting, and cinematographer Roger Deakins saturates the movie in shadow to add an extra layer of bleak ambience.
The only thing keeping “Prisoners” from being a true masterpiece is a misguided twist near the end that undercuts the ambiguity of Keller's decisions. Even still, it doesn't totally derail what's come before, and “Prisoners” remains one of the most ambitious, memorable and haunting movies of the year.
Read more of Rob Ryan's thoughts on movies on his blog at http://projections.blogs.gainesville.com
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