Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Warner Bros. Pictures
Rated R | 153 Minutes
Release Date: September 20, 2013
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are facing every parent’s worst nightmare. Their 6-year-old daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) is missing, along with her best friend Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). Minutes turn to hours – panic sets in. The families pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.
After searching the surrounding woods, Dover’s son (Dylan Minnette) mentions he saw the girls playing near a creepy old RV that had been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a peculiar young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old.
Due to a lack of evidence, Jones is released. A frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take the law into his own hands. As Loki pursues other leads, Dover tracks down Jones and holds him captive. He brutalizes the seemingly innocent man in hopes of getting a confession – in hopes of finding the little girls – but Jones remains silent. The further Dover goes, the closer he comes to losing his own humanity.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), Prisoners is a harrowing film about the loss of a child and to what lengths a desperate parent will go to get them back.
Villeneuve’s powerful, engrossing film features an impressive ensemble of actors who turn in fantastic performances: Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo – but it’s Gyllenhaal, Jackman, and Dano who shine. This is certainly Gyllenhaal’s best role since 2007’s Zodiac, and one of Jackman’s best performances – right there alongside The Prestige and The Fountain.
Prisoners actually owes a lot to the films of David Fincher – Zodiac, Se7en, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo – a bleak, sinister film that explores tragedy and atrocity in shocking, unsettling ways. It helps to have legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Skyfall) behind the camera, providing beautiful images that are filled with emptiness – cold and detached, dark and dreadful. There is a hopelessness to Prisoners that is heartbreaking – and yet you are so confident in Detective Loki that he will, somehow, solve the case.
There are some issues, however – particularly with pacing and plot structure. At 153 minutes, Prisoners is a twisty, cryptic puzzle of a film and I’m not sure all the pieces fit. Revelations feel rushed at times, with not enough information given to fully flesh out back stories, while other plot points are lingered on for far too long – as if Villeneuve is saying “Get it? Got it? OK, let’s show you this one more time, just to make sure” before progressing the story.
Still, Prisoners keeps you guessing. Some will say the ultimate revelation is predictable, or that the ending is a cop out – but I was so invested in Loki’s investigation (and Dover’s torturing of Dano’s character) that every twist and turn intrigued me and pulled me deeper into the story.
In retrospect, Villeneuve’s film could just be a really dumb whodunnit disguised as a smart, Fincher-esque thriller. Maybe those twists and turns are just simple misdirection – but I found the film to be engrossing in a way that few films are these days – it made me think.
I was connecting the dots alongside detectives and desperate fathers, and I kept thinking about what I would do if I were in this horrible situation – would I, like the parents in The Last House on the Left, ultimately become just as vile as those responsible for the death of my child, or would justice somehow prevail? Is there even such a thing as justice when it comes to the loss of a child – or is revenge the only form of applicable justice a parent can ever achieve?
Haunting, suspenseful, and masterfully acted by a terrific ensemble, Prisoners is one of the most absorbing (and unsettling) films of the year – a film with real emotional complexity that will chill you to the bone.
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