2013, R, 146 mins.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.