Movie Review: "Prisoners"
Rating: R (disturbing violent content, including torture, and language throughout)
Length: 153 minutes
Release Date: Sept. 20, 2013
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: 4 out of 5
"Prisoners" opens with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a rural Pennsylvanian and an avid hunter, taking his teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) out to hunt deer. As Dover returns home to dutiful wife Grace (Maria Bello) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), he reminds his son to always be prepared. Dover sets the example for preparedness by having a basement full of supplies that could probably get his family through the apocalypse. He doesn't necessarily believe in doomsday, but he is prepared in case it comes.
It's Thanksgiving, and the Dovers have prepared dishes to take over to their neighbors' house for what starts out as a happy day of two families enjoying each other's company. Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) have a daughter named Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) who is right around Anna's age, so nobody thinks twice when the two girls go off to play together. As the day wears on, it dawns on the adults that they haven't heard from the girls in a while, so they go looking for them. The search gets increasingly desperate as they realize Anna and Joy are nowhere to be found, which leads to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) taking on the case. Loki is a proud man who has solved every case he has ever been assigned, and the families hope that his streak will continue.
One of the adults recalls that a rusty old camper belonging to a man named Alex (Paul Dano) was parked nearby. The girls had tried to climb the ladder earlier in the day, so Loki brings Alex in for questioning. Since he can find no evidence that Alex took the kids, Loki must let him go. Keller, after encountering the cagey Alex outside the police station, is convinced he is guilty. He tells Grace he is helping the police with the search and instead kidnaps Alex, using torture and abuse to try and find out where his daughter is. Alex won't say a word and may not even be guilty, and the film delivers several gut-punching revelations before the case is solved.
At the start of the film, Keller appears to be the protagonist, and the audience is meant to root for him. As with any good mystery, "Prisoners" then switches gears to make viewers question their regard for Keller, who may not be the hero of the film after all. It's a classic switch for this film genre, but it is done so well and so subtly that most won't see it coming at all. Keller becomes desperate to find his daughter, a problem that anyone can sympathize with. The problem is that as Keller continues to search for her, his actions become more and more frightening, entering morally questionable territory. Viewers then have to ask themselves how much longer they can rightfully root for Keller, even though they want him to find his little girl.
Keller's slow and steady decline is a study in fine acting from Jackman, who has been flexing his muscles and claws of late as Wolverine in the "X-Men" films. In "Prisoners," he gets to show some real depth, turning in what is arguably the most nuanced and heartbreaking performance of his career so far. Though this is his movie through and through, other actors turn in fine performances as well. Gyllenhaal is fantastic as Loki, showing viewers that a really good actor doesn't even need words to convey emotion. His eyes say more than his words ever could, and his haunting stares reveal the pain that haunts him after years of sometimes gruesome police work. Gyllenhaal has made some huge blockbuster films to date, but "Prisoners" shows that he is well suited to quiet, character-driven work as well.
Director Denis Villeneuve is from Quebec, so all of his films to date have been in French. Though his films lose nothing in the subtitle translations, English-speaking audiences have yet to embrace them on a massive scale. That has all changed now with "Prisoners," which marks his English-language directorial debut. He clearly hasn't missed a beat in switching languages, producing one of the most thrilling films of the year. He uses Aaron Guzikowski's script to paint a picture of a town in ruin both physically and emotionally. It's a memorable movie that will no doubt get some attention once awards season begins.