2013 - 153 minutes
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring:Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Paul Dano,
Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo
Despite a central character that shares a name with the Norse god of trickery, wears a freemason ring and sports astrological and religious tattoos, “Prisoners” stays mostly grounded in a bleak authenticity that expresses the urgency and horror of a kidnapping and the race to a resolution. The first two-thirds of the film teem with atmosphere, shoehorning necessary procedural elements of the case into an examination of character and heavy themes. Unfortunately the dash to the ending is somewhat botched, eager to thrill while presenting a string of opportune answers that replace the misery with a tidiness that doesn’t quite fit.
Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a principled and dedicated family man who lives by the Boy Scout motto of “be prepared.” Though the Christian music he plays in his pickup truck and the out-loud recitations of The Lord’s Prayer seem like a little much, the cache of doomsday supplies in his basement gives a tangible representation of his rigid dogma.
On a dreary, rainy Thanksgiving Keller and his family – wife Grace (Maria Bello), teenage son and young daughter Anna – walk to the nearby home of the Birches, their seemingly better off friends up the street. Enjoying the holiday with Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the festive mood quickly darkens after Anna and Birch daughter Joy don’t return from a quick trip back to the Dover home. In the frantic moments that follow, Keller’s son notifies his father of a suspect RV that had been parked in the neighborhood, crystalizing a parent’s nightmare scenario. No matter how much water, propane and batteries Keller has stashed in his basement, nothing can prepare him for this. His firmness morphs into voracious anger, desperate to find his daughter and restore the familial order that has slipped away.
Calculated, loner Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) – he of the symbolic name, jewelry and body art –has solved every case he’s taken on and is tasked with finding the girls (or finding what happened to them). The RV is quickly located with no sign of the girls, only the driver Alex (Paul Dano), a man in his late 20s with “the IQ of a 10 year old.” Exhaustive questioning goes nowhere and the police are forced to release Alex into the custody of his adoptive mother Holly (Melissa Leo). Keller is not pleased, convinced the simple Alex knows something. He has reason to, with Alex making strange statements for his ears only. Desperate and enraged, Keller snatches Alex, holds him captive in an abandoned apartment building and attempts to torture information from him.
Targeting a parent’s worst fear, “Prisoners” effectively establishes the players in this scenario, creating a mystery but also confronting issues of morality in the face of tragedy. Loki is dogged but calculating, his face twitching as if he’s being overloaded with information, his mannerisms and inky neck and fingers suggesting a checkered past. Keller is a ravenous pit bull willing to do whatever it takes to get answers.
The film becomes the Loki and Keller show, with Keller’s wife relegated to drugged, bedridden basket case and the Birches largely disappearing from the story. Franklin turns up to be conflicted over Keller’s treatment of Alex and plead with him to stop. Viola Davis does get a powerful scene where she calmly asks questions while staring into Alex’s swollen, bloody face.
The performances of Jackman and Gyllenhaal are more than enough to carry the weight. Jackman blurs the line between justice and fanaticism, often disagreeable but never completely villainous; we always understand, even if we don’t condone his rage. Gyllenhaal is also slightly broken, but in control, putting in the grunt work without it feeling like a supercop routine.
Director Denis Villeneuve adds legitimacy to some of the more standard points of the procedural – clues aren’t presented in a THIS MEANS SOMETHING fashion, Loki’s police captain is detached and disagreeable without being hostile and emphasis is placed on feel rather than facts. Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins shoot the film in a way that makes it impossible not to notice the coarseness of the story. The roughness of tree bark is pronounced, the decay of the apartment building turned prison is palpable and the moisture in the air is penetrating.
The problem with drawing out this engaging scenario over the first two hours of “Prisoners” is that it has to end somehow. The connecting of the dots is handled by several twists in the narrative that substitute griminess and anxiety with assembly-line thriller engineering complete with red herrings, an unnecessary backstory and a talkative Big Bad. Due to the film’s deliberate pacing in the first two acts, by the time the contrivance kicks in we’re already two steps ahead and can work out a basic outline for how things are going to wrap up. Any nuance and lasting questions or emotions to be contemplated or felt after the fade to black are rendered inert by newspaper headlines and shallow sensibilities that tie a nice bow instead of unraveling the nerves.
© 2013 by Blake Crane