“Mesmerizing from beginning to end…”

Prisoners is the poster-child of powerful thriller filmmaking. It combines intensity through camerawork and careful, reserved plotting throughout its one-hundred and fifty minute runtime to ensure an active moviegoing experience on the viewer’s part. When seeing thrillers, especially ones that boast nothing but their star-power and cop-out in the face of development, scarcely do I feel so wrapped up in the conflict that I attempt to piece together the events and outcome in my head. I’m usually found complying to the film’s rules and going with the flow.

This is simply not the case with Prisoners, which is mesmerizing from beginning to end. It concerns religious carpenter and family-man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), who has a wife, a teenage son, and a six-year-old daughter. For Thanksgiving, the entire family decides to head over to their friends’ house, where Keller and his friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) can catch up and everyone else can enjoy the company of someone near their age. Keller’s youngest daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) plays with Franklin’s daughter Joyce (Kyla Drew Simmons) who is the same age as she is. They decide to play outside before supper.

Directed by
Denis Villeneuve
Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
Release Date
20 September 2013
Steve’s Grade: A+

Dinner arrives and the girls are nowhere to be found. They search the house from top to bottom and the surrounding area of the home. Keller’s son remarks about how they were playing near an RV outside and he specifically told them to get off of it. The police are soon notified and an Amber Alert for the girls issued. The detective issued on the case is Detective Loki, who is played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Soon after the disappearance, the RV is found at a gas station driven by a man named Alex Jones, played by Paul Dano (in something I call a career-making performance), who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) and is said to have the IQ of a ten-year-old. He speaks softly and seems he couldn’t hurt a fly. He is a prime suspect in the case, but possessing the IQ of a ten-year-old, how could he have taken the girls? The RV turns up not a sign of them and he is soon let go.

The Birch and Dover families are heartbroken and beside themselves, specifically Keller, who believes that Alex knows something about the disappearance, if not actually responsible for it. After assuring he was told by Alex, “they only cried when I left them” when he is released, Keller takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping him and keeping him hostage in an abandoned apartment complex. There he is beaten and mutilated by Keller, who demands he talks. Despite the physical brutality, Alex says not a word, and when he does, it’s usually a disjointed phrase and barely audible.

Immediately, many relationships brew in Prisoners, The one in particular to watch for is Keller’s relationship with Alex. The more distant Alex grows with the reality and seriousness of the situation the more angry and venomous Keller becomes. It’s hard to blame him for some of his actions, such as nearly assaulting Alex and demanding he remain in custody; he is a father who has just lost his little girl in circumstances he can’t figure out and piece together. It would appear that even those who are helping him — like Detective Loki — are the ones working against him.

When he goes and kidnaps Alex is when the dilemma is turned to the audience. We have been sympathetic to Keller’s situation for a long time now and understand his frustrations. However, is this action justified? It is as if we begin to feel bad for Alex, who, as far as we know, has committed or aided a disgusting act of kidnapping two young, innocent girls? Tolerance for impulsive behavior due to a deeply emotional incident can only go so far and as Prisoners unfolds that tolerance may be seen as crossing the line many times.

The cinematography at hand here is some of the best of the year. Roger A. Deakins captures the amazing landscape of Pennsylvania and gets to the heart of its bleak visuals, often including gray skies, heavy rainfall, open-lands that are desolate, and the cold, frigid air that each resident inhales. All of this becomes a factor in why the film works on an aesthetic level, which proves atmosphere has an enormous affect on a film, especially one with such frightening subject matter. With the camera in the hands of the Canadian director Denis Villeneuve – who finds himself delivering fascinating and tricky shots capturing rushing water and the monotonous woodsy environment, Prisoners also finds leverage as a tone-poem along with being a seriously engrossing thriller.

Finally, there are the performances, which also make up some of the strongest of the year. At the center are Jackman and Gyllenhaal, who are unsurprisingly great and would be worthy of Oscars come February. Then there is a truly mystifying and seriously unforgettable performance by Paul Dano, who you’ve likely seen before in films such as The Girl Next Door and Little Miss Sunshine, or maybe the widely-unseen For Ellen. Dano plays the confused and troubled Alex right down to the slow, methodical mannerisms and the blank and dazed facial expressions in a performance of subtle craft. I hate to think that, once more, a tremendous performance by him will go under the radar and hope I’m wrong.

Prisoners is a bold start to the fall movie season, which is largely dominated by films likely to garner up awards at the Academy Awards early next year. If this is any inkling of the turnout this season, it will be hard to decide which films to go see and even harder to choose favorites.

Review by Steve Pulaski, Lead Film Critic

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