A film review by Craig J. Koban September 26, 2013

RANK:  #9


2013, R, 146  mins.


Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki  /  Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover  /  Paul Dano as Alex Jones  /  Maria Bello as Grace Dover  /  Melissa Leo as Holly Jones  /  Viola Davis as Nancy Birch  /  Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch

Directed by Denis Villeneuve  /  Written by Aaron Guzikowski

I have not been able to shake PRISONERS out of my mind since I screened it days ago.  It took me awhile just to process it all.  Here’s an endlessly compelling, haunting, brutal, and spellbinding suspense thriller that not only transfixes you in ways so very few films from 2013 have, but it also poses many thorny and complex questions at viewers – without slavishly answering them - about the nature of right versus wrong, the cloudy and tainted perception of true justice, and whether or not the ends truly ever does justify the means.  It would be deceptively easy to label PRISONERS as shocksploitation and torture porn, but it isn’t at all concerned with cheap titillation.  It contains moments of indescribable torture, yes, but the film is more enamored with the psychological mindset of those that perpetrate such hellish acts…even when they think – deep down – that they are in the right. 

There have been countless studio revenge thrillers over the years, but PRISONERS somehow manages to achieve the impossible by somehow placating our inherent expectations for such films while artfully subverting them at the same time.  Furthermore, as a richly defined whodunnit, PRISONERS explores more than just discovering the identity of the culprits; it also deals with the query of what methods are acceptable when searching for said perpetrator.  I have heard how some have called the film a hybrid of DEATH WISH morphed with ZERO DARK THIRTY, which is somewhat apt: I would lean more heavily towards the latter film, as the morally questionable choices certain characters make in PRISONERS has eerie echoes of America’s treatment of captives when searching for the people behind 9/11.  If anything, PRISONERS feels more a part of our anxiety-fuelled and uncertain times than most mainstream genre releases. 

Best of all, this is a patient film that respects audience’s attention spans and their collective willingness to gradually immerse themselves within its dark story.  PRISONERS actually starts with a sense of routine normalcy: We meet two western Pennsylvanian families that gather for Thanksgiving dinner.  The first family, the Dovers, is headed by Keller (Hugh Jackman), a rough, grizzled, but caring husband and father who’s struggling to keep his carpentry business afloat.  The other family, the Birches, is headed by Franklin (Terrance Howard).  Keller and his wife Grace (Mario Bello) visit Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) for a Thanksgiving feast, and everything seems fine…that is until two of the family’s respective young daughters sneak outside…and vanish without a trace. 



Initially, both families don’t hit the panic button, but as more time goes by the more possessed with concern and worried they become.  A few scant clues point their way towards a young mentally challenged man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whose run-down RV was seen near the Birches’ home shortly before the children’s disappearance.  The families call in a police detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), an introverted loner of a cop that nonetheless has a penchant for getting the job done, despite his doesn’t-give-a-shit demeanor.  Loki does arrest the creepy young man with the mentality of a 10-year-old, but after a long and grueling interrogation the cops don’t have any concrete evidence that he is indeed the culprit.  Alex is released, which sends the already emotionally unhinged Keller into a delirious frenzy; he’s so positive that Alex is the man who abducted his kid – and he at least has some circumstantial evidence to support it – that he decides to abduct him and…savagely beat and torture a confession right out of him. 

PRISONERS becomes more of a hard-to-endure social nightmare the longer it progresses, but that is a supreme testament to the assured skills of its director, Quebec-native Denis Villeneuve, who previously made critically lauded films like MAELSTROM, POLYTECHNIQUE, and last year’s Best Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee INCEDNIES.  Working with the legendary Coen Brothers cinematographer Roger Deakins (0-10 for Oscar wins; a shame), Villeneuve creates an ominous visual palette through the film that typifies and reinforces the collapsed mental state of its characters.  You can simply feel the environmental oppression burying the hopes and sanity of Keller as his engages in his one-man torture mission to get to the truth.  The film – at 150 minutes – unwearyingly dwells on all of the finer details and minutia of these desperate and troubled people; it makes for, oddly enough, a disturbingly exquisite looking film. 

Hugh Jackman has never been more authentically animalistic and raw in a film as he is here as Keller.  Maybe this has something to do with the fact that he plays a stripped down, blue-collar everyman, but it may have more to do with the fact that his staggering performance captures every snarling bit of extroverted rage and desperation that Keller struggles with through the film.  He’s so convincingly ferocious here that a second Oscar nomination is warranted. The other players are empowered too, like Gyllenhaal, whom at first seems like he's drifting through his performance as a sullen and monosyllabic cop, but then you witness him really morph into his role and own every fiber of this detective’s oftentimes contradictory façade.  Paul Dabo has the tricky role of making the diminutive minded Alex both an unsympathetic suspect and a victim that may – or may not – be guilty.  His shrewd performance never tips anything off. 

The greatest achievement of PRISONERS, though, is that it’s gut-wrenchingly unflinching with its portrayal of torture while simultaneously taxing audience members with really difficult ethical dilemmas.  Is Keller really justified for his actions, even if evidence points to Alex as the kidnapper?  What if Alex is not guilty?  That would make Keller as vile as any other kidnapper…right?  Moreover, is the justice system so impotent that it would allow a relative good and decent man like Keller to become a primitive monster in his own right?  Does one’s insatiable thirst for revenge cloud one’s sense of right and wrong?  The film’s title is highly fitting, and with multiple meanings: It both refers – literally, of course – to the children and Alex being held captive, but maybe it also reiterates how Keller is psychologically held captive by his yearning for justice via an any-means-necessary approach.  The sheer torment and sense of dread that washes over this film is what makes it so masterfully conceived. 

Most impressively, though, is that PRISONERS so thoroughly absorbs, disturbs, and intellectually stimulates us with not only its labyrinthine and densely layered plot, but also with all of the convoluted layers upon layers of moral uncertainty at its core.  Crucially, this film never once feels coyly manipulative; it just simply presents the characters, their dicey quandaries, and their actions…and lets us make up our own minds.  PRISONERS is oftentimes mercilessly barbaric to sit through and, after seeing it, you may wish to cleanse yourself from the experience of seeing it.  But again, that’s all to the film’s hypnotic and forceful allure that holds you in your seat for two and a half hours.  This is one of 2013’s most deeply entrancing, nail-bitingly intense, and, yes, unforgettable films.

  H O M E