Release: Friday, September 20, 2013
Some will call it a movie. Others are going to call it psychological and emotional hell. It would be an insult to consider this merely the former, and one of the highest praises to call it the latter. Canadian director Denis Villenueve cranks up the tension like you’ve never seen before in a film that strikes extremely close to home for most of us.
When the children of Keller and Gracie Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, respectively) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) disappear at Thanksgiving in broad daylight, we are hereby thrust into a gauntlet of deeply personal fear, anxiety and despair as police and parents alike attempt to forge their own ways of getting to the bottom of one of the most baffling and chilling child abduction cases created in recent memory.
Not only is the fundamental concept disturbing — the very idea of young, innocent kids becoming victims a contributor to the dread and horror that this film so convincingly stirs up in us — but an incredibly well-directed story and first-rate acting are likely to leave considerable splashes in the pond of early Oscar contenders. While it may not win anything or even get nominated (it should), Prisoners for sure marks a change of seasons with regards to the kinds of releases we’re going to be accustomed to seeing in the upcoming months.
Breathe a sigh of relief. Fall is here.
Hugh Jackman puts on the performance of a lifetime as a blue-collar working, family man with perhaps one of the most macho names in recent movie history — Keller Dover, who’s likely to mess with a guy named that? His Keller is undoubtedly the devoted paternal figure, as well as he is a survivalist — “pray for the best but prepare for the worst;” and, it may also bear worth mentioning that he becomes central to the film’s complex morality play.
The reliably gritty role as a father on the verge of a complete mental breakdown plays to Jackman’s strengths as his character is forced to abduct the man he thinks is responsible for the disappearance of the girls, and to torture him accordingly. The entire ensemble is top-notch in Prisoners, but it is really Jackman who’s most haunting and takes us to some emotional lows we hadn’t quite experienced thus far in 2013. As time becomes more and more precious with every passing hour, Dover is forced to take actions that may taint his reputation as a decent man; is he just desperate or perhaps something more? At what point does a person sacrifice their dignity for the sake of finding out the truth?
The movie is able to handle such controversy and complexity as it features a range of reactions from each of its central characters who put on breathtaking performances. Terrence Howard is again excellent as a man who’s clearly devastated by the events but somehow cannot find it within himself to go to the lengths Dover does to try and find resolution. The wives — a distraught Maria Bello will break your heart, while Viola Davis shines in a couple of key scenes — are realistic, equally important to the story (though not as front-and-center as Keller and Franklin, clearly), and compelling to watch. No family member is unaccounted for and this is perhaps what makes Keller Dover’s cracking composure so interesting, and most of all, devastating to experience: he represents something of an extreme. (If Wolverine/Logan was a 9 out of 10, Keller is an 11 or 12.)
When we get saddled up with the oddball Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the situation jumps up a notch with the intrigue factor. The detective is a hard-working, thorough criminal investigator who stops at nothing to seek out justice — though his job may be viewed more-or-less as an impossibility. He doesn’t have enough information (supposedly the RV they detain and sweep over reveals no evidence of any kind that would be useful); he’s also slightly overwhelmed by the emotional outrages of Keller in particular (“I want you to look for my daughter!!!” — right, got it. He wasn’t doing this before you yelled this in his face), and his boss isn’t entirely convinced there is anything anyone can do in this case. Despite the bleak outlook, Loki is thoroughly committed to his duties; Gyllenhall committed to this commitment.
Undoubtedly, this review is all about some cast appraisal. There’s no way around it: each actor and actress herein sells the emotions — highlighted by Jackman’s rage and Bello’s descent into deep depression — as though these events were truly happening to them. To continue in this trend, Paul Dano and Melissa Leo (who plays Dano’s adoptive mother, Holly) cannot be overlooked either. Dano is back again in another shady role as a lead suspect in the abduction case, and as he falls victim to the emotional fury of one of the fathers, his Alex becomes quite the complex character in itself. In fact, he is proof that no character in Prisoners is free from the burden of doubt and disbelief.
Barring the third act which arguably overstays its welcome, this movie is a stroke of genius. It is unrelentingly emotional and in that regard, quite exhausting. Running at nearly two-and-a-half hours long, Prisoners requires endurance. It also assumes the average moviegoer is able to keep up with a relatively involved crime investigation. There’s a lot going on here, and it will pay dividends if you’re meticulously paying attention to detail, perhaps as much as Detective Loki is.
Recommendation: Imagine your children are all of a sudden removed from your life. You’re not sure where they are or how they are doing; you don’t even know if they are alive after a week of being missing. What would you do to get them back, and to what lengths would you go to ensure that that happens? It’s not exactly an easy watch, no. . . but these dire circumstances make for extremely engrossing viewing. Even if you’re not the head of a household, you’re going to find this an involving and sprawling story that’s difficult to believe is not BOATS.
Running Time: 153 mins.
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