Sunday, February 9, 2014
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Running Time: 153 min.
★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)
Prisoners is one of those thrillers where you can't really reveal anything. The plot is so full of twists and turns that even a basic description risks revealing too much. It's common knowledge that when children are abducted the chances of finding them greatly decreases with each passing minute. This film is about what happens during those passing minutes to the victims' families, the detective assigned to the case and the primary suspect. Having him in custody is merely the start of this strange, twisted journey that doesn't qualify as the run-of-the-mill mainstream suspense thriller or police procedural it was advertised as. Some will claim it does, and that director Denis Villeneuve, writer Aaron Guzikowski and legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins are just doing a really good job hiding it. And if they are, more power to them. But I'd argue Prisoners does bend quite a few rules, keeping you on the edge of your seat for two and a half hours without a clue what could happen from one minute to the next. And yet it never overstays its welcome since those involved seem to know exactly what they're doing, as an overwhelming sense of competence engulfs the project, making it impossible to not be swept along for the ride.
When Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family attend Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbors, the Birches, both families' young daughters, Anna and Joy, go out for a walk. They don't return. The only clue is an old RV parked on the street belonging to a mentally disabled young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has an IQ of a ten-year-old and lives with his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo). He's clearly the prime suspect, but when the detective in charge of the case, David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), brings him in for questioning, it's discovered they don't have nearly enough to hold him. That's when an enraged Dover decides to take the law into his own hands and deal with Alex himself. Things start to get ugly as Loki suddenly has three equally difficult jobs in finding the abductor, locating the girls and managing an out of control Dover, who's hell bent on finding his daughter his way, without the authorities' help. With hardly any support from his superiors, Loki must piece together a series of bizarre clues and evidence, just as another suspect emerges who's somehow even creepier than Alex. Minutes turn to hours and then to days, and with that comes the increased chance this will turn from an abduction case to a murder investigation, and the search will soon be for bodies.
What's atypical here is that the main suspect's guilt is in legitimate doubt for nearly entire length of the picture, to the point that your suspicion of Alex literally wavers from one scene to the next. At first, Dover seems like an irrational hothead so worked up by his daughter's abduction that he's willing to go after the only person who emerges as a believable suspect. While that's at least partially true, he discovers a few pieces of seemingly irrefutable evidence that causes him to (somewhat justifiably) fly off the deep end at the news of his release from custody. Dover may not be an easy character to like, but he's an easier one to root for because it's impossible not to feel for a father put in that situation. If nothing else, you have to respect his consistency even when his methods are flawed. And there's also the very real possibility he's right and that the police squandered the one lead they had..Jackman's an actor known for his natural charm and charisma but it's completely buried here to the point of invisibility. In its place is the pure anger and intensity of a man who will stop at nothing to find his daughter, no matter how much his vigilantism is frowned upon by his overmedicated wife Grace (Maria Bello) and Joy's parents, Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). You've never seen Jackman like this as the role is a complete 180 from most of what he's tackled before, challenging our perceptions of what we thought him capable of in a leading role.
Gyllenhaal is in full Zodiac mode as Detective Loki, with the key exception being that he's playing as actual cop this time around and the character has a much harder, experienced edge to him. It definitely deserves its place in the "Glylenhaal of Fame" of performances right alongside his work in Zodiac, Donnie Darko and Source Code. Loki's definitely the hero of the story, rarely misstepping in the face of seemingly impossible odds and tangled webs of circumstantial clues. Just as we doubt Alex's involvement, of equal doubt is whether this detective can even crack the case. While much of that uncertainty comes from the twisty plot, credit should also be extended to Paul Dano's unnerving performance as Alex, which fluctuates so wildly between pure creepiness and an almost childlike innocence that we begin to seriously second guess our understanding of the character's motivations. Has he really been falsely accused or is this a superbly calculated performance within a performance? An almost entirely mute Dano never tips his hand too far in either direction with Alex's behavior, all while spending three quarters of the film under physical assault and abuse.
Cold and calculating in both tone and execution, this almost feels like a more mainstream B-side to David Fincher's Zodiac or Se7en. This is especially noticeable in the rain-drenched, darkened setting, which Roger Deakins lights to make as much of a character as any of the actual characters inhabiting it. What starts as a relatively simple case evolves into something increasingly complex and morally ambiguous. That the title "prisoners" could reasonably refer to any number of characters speaks to the script's ingenuity. But more importantly, the the movie speaks to every parent's worst nightmare in capturing the horror of a child abduction in middle class suburbia. Then it goes ten steps further, concluding with a chilling, unshakeable final shot befitting the strongest thriller of the year. Endings are always tough, but this one absolutely nails it, combing just the right mixture of ambiguity and closure. The only worry in revisiting the film is that the revelations are so surprising you'd wonder how multiple viewings could impact the appreciation of how well it narratively holds together. Luckily though, despite carrying a lot of plot, Prisoners gets all the other small, important details right that most thrillers of recent years haven't even bothered with.