Prisoners Review


Prisoners is the most tightly plotted 153-minute movie you’ll ever see. It’s a masterpiece of the crime genre that covers a lot of ground, but every crumb, clue, and detail dropped by director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski is essential to its (murky-ish) resolution. Comparisons to films like Se7en and Zodiac are inevitable because of the films’ shared genre and dark look/tone. Prisoners, however, is a different beast entirely. Not only is it a step up in terms of quality (yep), but it packs an emotional punch throughout that’s tough to sit with and damn near impossible to shake. It’s the perfect way to kick off the fall movie season and a definite contender for my best film of 2013.

It’s Thanksgiving in rural Pennsylvania, and Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his family are spending the holiday with their close friends and neighbors, the Birches. When the youngest of both clans, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) run off to play, there’s nothing on their parents’ mind other than leftovers, but when they don’t turn up and can’t be found anywhere, everyone understandably panics.

The police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), pick up the primary suspect rather quickly. The girls were seen playing near an RV that’s owned by Alex Jones (Paul Dano), and when Loki moves in on him, he tries to get away. Unfortunately, they can’t charge him with anything after a forensic sweep of the RV turns up nothing, but that’s not good enough for Keller. He grabs Alex outside of the home where he lives with his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), and with the help of Joy’s father, Franklin (Terrence Howard), he chains Alex up at a run-down property he owns and starts torturing him for information. If the police won’t do anything, he’s prepared to take matters into his own hands.

That’s just Prisoners‘ first 30 minutes or so. It ultimately follows a remarkable number of threads—each one darker than the last—before the whole tale is told. Villeneuve, making his English-language debut following the searing drama Incendies, teases each thread in such a way that you know it will be integral to the story as a whole. You know this because you’ve seen this movie before. It’s a crime film that’s built knowing decades of genre conventions exist and will be necessarily followed if we’re to travel from point A to point B successfully. But Prisoners overcomes the trappings of feeling overly familiar by paying attention to detail and keeping every ball in the air—something studio thrillers just can’t pull off (or don’t care to try pulling off) today.

Prisoners‘ supremely rich character work is another essential aspect to its success. The detective character is a critical piece in this genre’s puzzle, but Loki is a very special iteration of someone who’s typically one-note and uninteresting. In the hands of a never-better Jake Gyllenhaal, the detective takes on a fascinating hybrid of vulnerability and hard-nosed cleverness. He figures stuff out, but he’s often behind the 8-ball (sometimes tragically so). And on occasion, the trail’s-gone-cold nature of the case manifests itself outwardly through Loki in dangerous ways. It’s a brilliant performance.

The whole ensemble is terrific, really, with Hugh Jackman doing career-best work as an already intense father upping the intensity to a 15 out of 10 following the disappearance of his daughter. Paul Dano doesn’t say much, but his creepy and pathetic (yet bizarrely sympathetic) portrayal of Alex fits the film perfectly. Melissa Leo is so out-there playing Alex’s aunt, but like Dano, she’s absolutely magnetic. Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello and others complete the deep principal cast, and all excel in smaller roles.

The film is a spectacular editing showcase, and Roger Deakins‘ dark, small-town-influenced cinematography is among the year’s best. And Villeneuve and Guzikowski—not content to simply satisfy their audience on a visceral level—touch on religion and rural American values in interesting and non-judgemental ways. Simply put, Prisoners is a one-of-a-kind movie—something that’s as thought-provoking as it is emotionally involving, as well-acted as it is well-crafted, and as good as anything else this year.

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