October 16, 2013 Leave a comment
While at the home of Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving dinner, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) asks to take Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) back to her own parent’s house to look for her missing whistle. When her father Keller (Hugh Jackman) goes to check up on them later that evening, however, they are nowhere to be seen. Brother Ralph (Dylan Minnette) remembers the girls playing on an old campervan, and the police — lead by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) — soon manage to track the vehicle down to a nearby gas station, from which the driver attempts to escape. Unconvinced that he is the man they are looking for, Loki decides to pursue new leads; Keller, on the other hand, takes the law into his own hands, kidnapping Alex Jones (Paul Dano) upon his release from custody and torturing him for answers.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is a lot more than just your average revenge thriller. An exploration of faith, forgiveness and the judicial system, the film uses its considerable 153-minute running-time to torment its characters and test its audience, forcing everyone to question the proportionality and justifiability of everyone’s actions. Unlike other such films, Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay doesn’t just concern itself with the central mystery: the girls barely feature, leaving the audience to fear not so much for their physical well-being but for the psychological and even spiritual toll their absence is having on the two respective families.
While Guzikowski touches on these topics, it’s testament to the talents of all involved that Prisoners is as potent and powerful as it is. Jackman’s performance blends the vulnerability of Jean Valjean with the haunted physicality of Wolverine. The film opens with Keller reciting The Lord’s Prayer while teaching his teenage son to kill a deer – at this point in the narrative he is a man prepared for any eventuality, with a basement stockpiled with supplies and a worldview that prepares him for the worst. When genuine hardship befalls his family, however, his DIY attitude isn’t quite the Godsend he expected it to be. In one of the film’s most gut-wrenching scenes, Keller tries to repeat the prayer, only this time struggling over the verses preaching forgiveness.
While Jackman may have the most attention-grabbing role in the film, however, he is by no means its only asset. Howard and Maria Bello are just as heartbreaking as grieving parents, while Minnette shines every time he’s on screen as the Dover’s shell-shocked son. Gyllenhaal too impresses as Detective Loki, overcoming the clunkiness of his Asguardian surname with an incredibly nuanced performance that belies real depth. He blinks with the same voracity with which he fights crime. For me, however, the clear stand-out was Viola Davis, who wears her desperation and helplessness for all to see. She gets slightly more to do than Bello, and steals every scene that she’s in.
Prisoners isn’t perfect, however, and as strong as the performances, the subtext and Roger Deakins’ cinematography may be there are issues with the final act that can’t really be ignored. For a film that has fought for realism and pursued morality over mystery, the denouement feels jarringly generic and like something of a missed opportunity. It is here that religion stops being theme and becomes plot, with snakes and priests and mazes overwhelming the narrative. There is a sense of gimmickry about the revelations, and what was originally bleak and brave is no longer quite as believable. This diversion into Movieland is not quite as disastrous as it proved in The Call, and certainly doesn’t derail the narrative, but it’s a needless gear-change that does disappoints regardless.
A gripping film that is nicely acted and beautifully shot, Prisoners is for the most part a provocative and pulse-pounding thriller that will hopefully be rewarded come awards season. Unfortunately, the film somewhat loses its resolve towards the end, and what started out as an innocent fence-jumping chase sequence soon deteriorates into every other murder mystery, ever.