MPAA Rating: R/ Genre: Thriller/ Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dennis Christopher, Dylan Minnette, Brad James, Zoë Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Jeff Pope/ Runtime: 153 minutes
I think it is safe to say that for any parent out there, from those whose child has just been brought into the world to those whose children have been around the block perhaps a tad bit longer, I think there is a universal fear that ties them all together. That being what would happen if said child went missing with slim to no evidence for the police to go on in order to help them find them and bring them home? Yet whilst this is a question that a few slices of cinema have addressed before (Taken anyone?) I can safely promise you that you haven’t seen it addressed in the way that 2013’s Prisoners chooses to. That is because when it comes to such thrill rides, I can safely say that Prisoners is a true must-see for adult movie goers in every sense of the word. This is because this visceral, ominous, unnerving slice of cinema from iconic film helmer Denis Villeneuve dealing with 2 little girls being horrifically kidnapped is by far one of the most intelligent and riveting crime thrillers I have had the pleasure of watching since the first time I sat down and watched Seven from 1995. Indeed it might be hard for some people to sit through, but for those of you who can this is one film that, thanks to phenomenal work on both sides of the camera, is one bleak and heartwrenching nightmare that will leave you on the edge of your seat every time you watch it be it your first or 61st time viewing it.
The plot is as follows: Prisoners gets underway in a fairly equal blend of both foreboding and roundabout as we witness a guy as he is in the middle of supporting his son who is hunting a deer for the first time. We are soon able to ascertain that the dear ol’ dad is one Keller Dover and whose choice of occupation may be that of a carpenter, but who also has other pursuits. Namely that Mr. Dover is perhaps who the dictionary would refer you to when looking up the living definition of “survivalist”. Indeed here is a man who literally clings to his independence as if it were divinely inspired, and who views his emergency room full of supplies of all shapes and sizes as if it were the throne room of Heaven itself. Yet lest you begin to think “oh lord is he just one of those isolated nuts who is just completely friendless and who endlessly preaches about the need to prepare for the worst?” let me put you at ease and assure you he’s not….entirely like that. A fact I can quickly back up as we see him and his family consisting of, besides him and his son, loving wife Grace and their precious little girl choose to spend Thanksgiving with their neighbors and close friends the Birch’s made up of patriarch Franklin, his wife Nancy, and their 2 girls. However following a truly wonderful meal shared together in each other’s company and as the adults are relaxing later that afternoon with a glass of wine or 3 and watching the big game on TV or just talking and joking around, we see the 2 little girls make the seemingly innocent request to go back to the Dover home to retrieve something. However things soon take a turn for the terrifying when the girls don’t come back. Upon searching for them & coming up short, we see that things soon get even worse with the revelation that an unfamiliar van had been located outside. Thus starting to really suspect the worst case scenario, we see the families quickly call the police, who call in a devoted and brilliant detective to take lead on the case, and a hunt for the girls begins in earnest. Yet whilst the hunt starts to drag on with no hope in sight, we soon see a sliver of a silver lining emerge when the cops are able to find and detain the mentally impaired young man who was driving the suspicious van. Unfortunately not long thereafter we see that, due mostly to a significant lack of proof, the police are left with no choice, but to release him from their custody. Irate and at the end of his rope, we see Keller feel he is left with no other options but to kidnap Alex and viscerally torture him for information since he feels this is the only way to bring the girls home. Suffice it to say the clock is now ticking and, even with both of these men investigating the case in their own way, the questions still remain: what did happen to these little girls, and above all: who took them and where did they take them to?
Now with every single reveal that is thrown our way, props must be given to this slice of cinema’s downright intelligent script for not only checking all the right boxes, but also for arriving in a fairly organic manner for the characters themselves as well. Indeed this terrific balancing act also applies to the work done at the helm by Villeneuve. Indeed Villeneuve manages to keep a visceral hold on you, the viewer whilst also vehemently refusing to engage in cheap jump scares or in denying the honesty of the pathos on display. At the same time though, this is one slice of cinema that is confident enough to know that it has you right where it wants you and thus can devote time to the type of character growth material that usually is cut due to time constraints. In the hands of a less confident helmer, a movie like this with a narrative like this would potentially be an unmitigated fiasco, but in a skilled film helmer’s hands such as Villeneuve’s, nothing is drawn out unnecessarily, the characters are all rivetingly three-dimensional, and we are left with a truly intriguing debate about how far is too far for those you love that will leave you still in thought long after the film has ended. Yet behind the camera the real MVP undoubtedly has to be the grim yet gorgeous work in the cinematography department by iconic cinematographer Roger Deakins. Indeed Deakins does a wonderful job right from the word go at dropping us into a world that although beautifully filmed is grim, depressing, haunting, miserable, bleak as heck, and yet never once colorful or aglow in light. Suffice it to say not only does Deakins’ work match the world of the film perfectly, but it also does a wonderful job at feeling just as miserable as the characters are as they deal with this horrific plight that has thrown an unexpected wrench in their lives.
Now the cast in this are all the very dictionary definition of first-rate. Indeed every single performer in this manages to bring their respective A-game and as a result gives this movie a wonderful jolt of energy in front of the camera to match the truly electrifying work done behind it. This starts with Hugh Jackman in the role of Keller Dover and I am going to be absolutely honest with you dear reader: this is easily one of the top 5 performances of his film career. A lot of that is because the character of Keller is a very intriguing one since despite being a protagonist in this and there will be people who can understand why he does the things he does in this movie, he is also a very flawed man who a lot of people will have an issue with in regards to his methods as the movie goes on. A fact that also may or may not come into play with just where this slice of cinema, without spoilers, chooses to take his respective arc in the narrative. Yet even with that in mind, there is no denying that there Jackman brings to the role a wonderful maelstrom that is equal parts grief, rage, and just pure visceral ferocity. I mean if no other parts of this movie have appealed to you so far then trust me when I say that the moments between him and Dano and the moments between him and Gyllenhaal are worth the price of the DVD or Blu-Ray alone. They are powerful, they are riveting, they are downright heartwrenching, and they help immensely in making this performance some of the best cinematic work that Jackman has ever given us to date. It should also be said that Jake Gyllenhaal also manages to do equally as electrifying work in this as Detective Loki. Indeed Gyllenhaal does a wonderful job at portraying a doggedly determined detective who might be great at his job, but quickly and exasperatedly finds himself in this case coming up against his toughest opponent ever. Not in the usual frustrating, heartbreaking, and time-consuming hunt for the girls and their abductor, but rather in the father of one of the girls literally second guessing and impeding him and his efforts every step of the way with moves of his own. I mean not only does Gyllenhaal give us a truly wonderful three-dimensional performance, but more importantly he gives this character that in so many other slices of cinema would be a simple one dimensional character a wonderfully significant amount of heart and soul thus making for another fantastic performance from one of the more underrated talents in the business. Now I love the powerful work done in this by Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello as the other parents at the heart of this gloomy yet riveting affair and they bring their A-game just as much as everyone else, but they are sadly overshadowed quite a bit by the work done in this by Gyllenhaal, Jackman, and Dano respectively. Speaking of…I think it should be said now that this movie has one heck of a performance by Dano. I mean not only does Dano do a chilling job in his portrayal of this mentally impaired young man who may or may not be the key to the whole mystery, but he also provides a surprisingly empathic turn as well due to how much he is (justly? unjustly?) put through the absolute wringer in this. Indeed he may be the chief suspect, but in a curious way we are meant to show him pity as well and Dano manages to walk that line beautifully.
All in all dark and depressing as Prisoners may be, I can still honestly say that this slice of cinema is really really darn good. More than that actually, this is a legitimately great slice of cinema that I am so thankful we as movie goers 18 and up (please do not show this to your kids; I promise you this is very much a movie for adults) were able to get in the past 10 years. Yet even as I write those words, I also feel it should be said that this slice of cinema at the same time is a significantly more expansive and also fairly alienating slice of cinema than even I could have foreseen to say nothing of not being for the reasoning that I had in mind when I first saw the trailer all those years ago. Indeed by veering back and forth between a pathos-driven human drama as well as a labyrinthesque crime procedural on the level of 2007’s Zodiac, which also incidentally had Jake Gyllenhaal in the cast, it nearly at times trips over its own two feet in trying to keep this balancing act alive. Thankfully, this slice of cinema’s immensely talented (and a director I have come to really look forward to any slices of cinema he helms) Denis Villeneuve manages to do a wonderful job of not only keeping this film on track, but also in not letting his film take us down any trails that are easy to swallow even when these trials are lengthy, fairly twisty, and ones that perhaps even the most casual movie goer might be aware of just where in the world they will wind up. Thus when you add into this already intriguing mix a narrative that is easily every single parent’s worst fear come vividly and depressingly to life, work from the other departments behind the camera with particular regard to the work done in this slice of cinema by iconic cinematographer Roger Deakins that is for all intents and purposes another character in this slice of cinema, and an absolutely fantastic cast led by a pair of downright mesmerizing and incredibly gripping turns by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal respectively you get a slice of cinema that is easily a genuinely great film through and through, but also one of the best the long ago year 2013 ever sought fit to give us. On a scale of 1-5 I give Prisoners “2013” a solid 4 out of 5.