Movie Review ~ Prisoners

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When Keller Dover’s daughter and her friend go missing, he takes matters into his own hands as the police pursue multiple leads and the pressure mounts. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?

Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, David Dastmalchian

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Rated: R

Running Length: 146 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (10/10)

Review: When I reviewed the first trailer for Prisoners back in June I was mad.  I had reached my breaking point for trailers pushing the three minute mark that seemed to show the entire film, freely giving away plot twists and turns that I so enjoy discovering when I’m watching the entire film.  Seeing the trailer often before films these last few months I would always turn to my seat mate and say “They showed the ENTIRE movie!”…even when I was seeing a film solo.

Then I started reading more about the movie as it started to be screened at various film festivals and heard that there was more to this crime drama than the trailer was letting on.  As the film gathered steam (and award recognition) I began to hope that the buzz was true and Prisoners, with its impressive cast and dark plot details, was more than met the eye.  Could there be any secrets left unturned?

The answer was a resounding yes and Prisoners has now hurdled to the top of my Best of 2013 List (don’t worry, The Way Way Back…you are still going strong as my favorite film but you’re a different movie than Prisoners).  It’s not only one of the best, most satisfyingly intense films of the year but one of best crime dramas of the last decade…taking a place on the shelf next to L.A. Confidential and Zodiac.

The set-up of the film is exactly how the trailer opens, two young girls go missing on a drizzly Thanksgiving day in a modest suburban development.  While their families are lounging around suffering the effects of a filling turkey feast, someone has infiltrated this quiet neighborhood and now the girls have vanished.  These early scenes are played by the actors so casually and unassuming that we instantly know the relationship these neighbors have formed.  As the realization that the girls are missing grows, the film begins its vice grip on the audience, applying only light pressure as we watch Hugh Jackman (Les Misérables, The Wolverine), Maria Bello (Abduction), Viola Davis (Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close) and Terrance Howard (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) begin their search as concerned parents before giving way to frantically tearing through the neighborhood to find their children.

The next character to be introduced is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, End of Watch) as he’s brought in to investigate a Winnebago that was seen in the vicinity, now ominously parked at a rest stop.  Inside is Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper, Being Flynn), who looks like the perfect suspect with his slightly off personality and big “I’m a creep” glasses.  Trouble is, with no girls found and no evidence in the Winnebago Alex is soon released back into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo, Oblivion, Olympus Has Fallen) only to be taken himself by Jackman’s survivalist father that isn’t satisfied with what the police have done to find the girls.

Now that’s about as much as the trailer shows you and it’s as much of the plot that I’m going to give away…because all of this happens in the first 40 minutes of the 2 ½ hour film…I know because I checked my watch wondering what would take up the remainder of the film.  Well, the turns the film takes and the secrets that are slowly revealed are explored fully, making Prisoners one of the rare films that gets more interesting the more you know about what’s going on.

More than anything, the film raises some questions about justice and how far we’ll go to get the answers that we want…which could make us no better than the criminals that are out there.  It’s not the most revolutionary question to ask an audience but the delivery is so skilled, detailed, and profound that it’s a punch to the gut when you consider the very real situation on hand in Prisoners.

The vice that keeps applying more pressure to the audience is given greater strength by a full battery of actors that push off any pre-conceived notions we have of them and let true characters shine through.  Jackman is always a dependable presence but he goes deeper with his tormented father than he ever has before, showing the blood and pain that hides below his exterior.  Davis and Howard work well both in tandem and solo as their characters have a moral bridge to cross that they may regret going over.  Bello is probably the least successful in her draft of the character, not ever being fully convincing as Jackman’s suddenly fragile wife.  Her performance has guts, true, but it left me wanting more.

For my money, the film belongs to Gyllenhaal.  After End of Watch, I wasn’t sure I could me more impressed with his work but he raises the bar on his own career with a nuanced and deeply etched detective that hates to be wrong and beats himself up for missing obvious clues.  Gyllenhaal fills his character with quirks and ticks that aren’t ever really explained and never go into “performance” mode.  He’s an actor that builds his character from the ground up and he’s made the wise choice to put a back-story in that only he knows and lets the audience try to figure out what makes him tick.  It’s a brilliant, haunting performance.

The whole film is a haunting experience, actually, and that’s thanks to not only the cast but director Denis Villeneuve excellent pace in handling Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) dense script.  Guzikowski has only written three scripts and is clearly someone to pay attention to.  Making maybe even more of an impact that the direction or script is the brilliant cinematography of Roger Deakins (Skyfall), giving the film even more complexity.  Though the film is largely shot in the grey gloom of winter, Deakins comes up with some incredibly vivid images that highlight the terror and the hidden darkness that plagues these two families, the detective that is desperate for clues, and an evil that’s not revealed in full until the final moments.

I know films of this nature can be hard for some people to take and if you’re one of those people I’m sure you’ll make the decision on your own if putting yourself through this intense experience is worth it.  I found the film to be practically flawless, achieving success on every level without making sacrifices.  There were genuine surprises that made me gasp and a denouement that felt justly earned…it’s not the punishing experience that so many of these films tend to drift toward but instead it emerges as a rewarding piece of filmmaking that will easily land the movie in prime awards consideration.

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