Prisoners

****½

It sucked!It'll be on cable.I liked it.It was good!It was awesome!! (Give us your rating!!)
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“Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.”

Prisoners

The H-Bomb:  What would you do if your child went missing?  Would you not do anything and everything in your power to get them back?  Even if it meant going to any extreme, and doing things you never would have thought yourself capable of?  That is the very question that Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) faces when his young daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and her friend vanish on Thanksgiving Day.  After a search of the neighborhood turns up nothing, Keller starts to fear that the girls have been abducted.  The only lead that he can give the police is that they were seen playing near an RV parked in the street.

Later that night, the police find the RV and take its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), into custody.  Alex, as it happens, is a man-child with the mind of a ten-year-old (kind of like the real life Alex Jones), and after hours of being grilled by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), gives up no information as to the whereabouts of the missing girls.  More or less ruling this simpleton out as a suspect, Loki starts to look into other possible leads.

Keller, however, is not at all convinced of Alex’s innocence.  His suspicion turns into certainty when Alex mutters something to him, something about his daughter, while leaving the police station.  Keller tries to tell Loki about this,  but Loki dismisses it, advising Keller to just go home and let him do his job.  But there’s no way Keller can do that.  Every moment that passes, it becomes less and less likely that the girls will be found alive.  Convinced that Alex had something to do with their disappearance, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands…

I passed on Prisoners when it was out in theaters last fall because it looked like nothing more than your typical kidnapping thriller.  The kind of disposable potboiler that everyone did for a quick and easy paycheck.  Fuck me, was I wrong!  A cross between Zodiac and Mystic River, Prisoners is an engrossing, layered, smarter-than-average thriller that taps into every parent’s worst fear, then poses that most important question, “What would you do?”  Director Denis Villeneuve takes a low key, nuanced approach to Aaron Guzikowski’s twist-laden screenplay and builds an unnerving sense of dread that amplifies as the picture progresses.

Remaining fairly subdued and un-intrusive with the camera, Villeneuve effectively shows how two families are shattered by the disappearance of their daughters, and how they are pushed to the limit both emotionally and psychologically.  Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello), bombs herself with pills and stays in bed all day.  The parents of the other missing child, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), seem to cope by simply shutting off emotionally.  As for Keller, the survivalist that he is (wait till you see the inside of his basement), he decides, as stated, to do something about it himself.

This is where Prisoners stops being a run of the mill thriller, and turns into a thought provoking, and somewhat disturbing, morality play.  Without giving away any specifics, Keller forces himself to do things that betray every sense of who he is as a decent, God fearing man, in order to get his daughter back.  He is horrified when he realizes the level of brutality that he’s capable of, and Jackman, who gives it everything he’s got, is simply fantastic.  Here, as a desperate man hanging on to his humanity by a thread, he taps in to something deep and dark, and delivers a truly great performance.  His best, I’d say.  He made me feel for Keller, but he also made me afraid of him.  Jackman’s turn is truly award worthy, and naturally, the Academy didn’t nominate it.

Also putting in an excellent showing is Gyllenhaal, as the dogged Detective Loki, who cooly and methodically investigates every possible lead and angle of the case, all the while dealing with a ticking clock, an incompetent chief, and an increasingly unhinged Keller.  I would’ve expected Prisoners to lose a step any time it took focus off of Keller and the other parents, but in actuality, the police procedural aspect of the film, while less emotional, is every bit as engaging.  The deeper Loki delves into the case, the more compelling it becomes, as we discover, along with him, that there’s a lot more to it than a simple kidnapping.

Gyllenhaal is as convincing as he is commanding, and he more than holds his own when he has to butt heads with Jackman, I just would’ve liked to have known the story behind his character’s freaky tattoos, which were a bit distracting.  As for the supporting performances, Dano strikes just the right balance between innocent and creepy as the prime suspect, Alex, a character who we don’t know if we should fear or pity.  Howard and Davis are solid as the other couple, the Birches, though I really would have liked to have gotten a better sense of their relationship and who they are.  Bello, as the constantly crying mother who just can’t deal with her daughter’s disappearance, seemed a bit one note, though I suppose her reaction is a perfectly realistic one.

As for the film’s other imperfections, at two and a half hours, it is definitely on the long side.  Never is it at any point boring, but it certainly could have been tightened.  Is no one capable of making a movie under two and a half hours, anymore?  Another issue, and this is hard to explain without crapping spoilers, but I found the way in which everything tied together at the end to be simply unbelievable.  Again, I can’t go into details, but pretty much every single thing Loki discovers peripheral to the kidnapping, ends up being relevant to it in some way.  Eventually, the coincidences just became too much to swallow.

Those rather minor faults aside, Prisoners is an almost unbearably intense, and surprisingly thoughtful thriller that packs one hell of an emotional punch.  I am completely beside myself at how riveted I was by it, and I can say with all honesty that it is one of the best films of 2013, falling behind only 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  It’s a crying shame that it’s been almost completely overlooked this awards season, as it is a genuinely gripping motion picture that I won’t soon forget.

 


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