Saturday, November 30, 2013

Prisoners Movie Review

Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners spends two hours being so good it comes as a bit of a disappointment that the resolution is so utterly conventional. For an investigative thriller it is almost unbelievably contemplative. It’s a movie that is more content to get into the minds of its characters than to dutifully land on action beats at the appropriate moments, although the action does arrive, often ferociously.


Hugh Jackman brings volatile intensity to Keller Dover, a suburban working class father of two whose youngest, a six-year old girl, disappears on Thanksgiving along with a friend, the daughter of neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch. The girls’ older siblings know that earlier they’d been playing on an RV parked in the neighborhood and so the investigation leads the police and lead detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to their first suspect, a young man whose distance and remove from the world may not be entirely explained by his having the IQ of a ten-year old. As portrayed by Paul Dano, the suspect Alex Jones looks like a frightened little boy most of the time, but a glint in his eyes suggests a deeper knowledge of the girls’ whereabouts than he’s willing to let on. His behavior is odd. He slams the RV into a tree to escape the police and then hides in a cupboard.

Keller isn’t satisfied when the police let Alex go lacking sufficient evidence to charge him. So he kidnaps the boy and begins torturing him in an abandoned apartment building in order to make him talk, believing that he at least knows something of the location of the girls. Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello) knows nothing as she medicates herself into a virtual coma to ease the pain. Meanwhile their teenage son has nowhere to turn. Keller brings Franklin (Terrence Howard) in, who very reluctantly goes along, recognizing how very wrong their actions are. When his own wife (Viola Davis) learns of it, she decides they won’t stop Keller, but neither will they have any part in it.

The prisoners of the title refer well beyond the two little girls and the young man. Villeneuve shows us the ways in which we are all prisoners in some way. Some people are imprisoned by their own conscience, like Franklin and Nancy, who can’t bring themselves to harm someone who may honestly be innocent. Some are prisoners of their own past, like Alex and his elderly aunt (Melissa Leo) whose husband disappeared and never returned five years ago. Grace is imprisoned by her inability to cope and her son by his parents’ refusal to take care of their family during the daughter’s absence. Detective Loki has an unusual devotion to his job and an eye-blinking tick that suggests secrets in his past that are only mildly alluded to. When his investigation leads him to a drunk priest, he discovers a terrible secret lurking beneath the rectory. There’s another person whose past has imprisoned him, awaiting the liberation brought on by the observant officer.

What I’ve found in the months between seeing the movie and finally writing this review is that it really lingers in the mind. It has not really left my thoughts. Prisoners, like the very best thrillers, gets under the skin and just parks itself, occasionally crawling around creating an itch you can’t scratch. It’s a great asset that the film was shot by Roger Deakins, one of the very best cinematographers working in Hollywood today. It’s fairly safe to say that his lighting creates the atmosphere that absolutely sells this movie. He lights his subjects with intense brightness while keeping the surrounding areas of the frame just dark enough to leave the viewer uneasy about what’s hidden.

What are people capable of doing? According to Villeneuve and Aaron Guzikowski, who wrote the screenplay, quite a lot of violence and evil. Other questions Guzikowski presents include what lengths a parent would go to protect his child. When is it time to give up and let go? How do you extinguish the tremendous pain of loss? Most of these characters, from Keller to the seemingly insignificant priest and everyone in between, have lost something. That very fact prevents them all from living their lives in a way that most people would describe as normal.

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