Prisoners Directed by: Denis Villeneuve Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis Running Time: 2 hrs 33 mins Rating: R Release Date: September 20, 2013
PLOT: After two girls disappear in a quiet Pennsylvania neighborhood, one of the fathers (Jackman) kidnaps a potential suspect previously released from police custody (Dano). Meanwhile, a detective (Gyllenhaal) obsessively seeks to find the children before time runs out.
WHO'S IT FOR? Moviegoers ready for a tense story that will take them to very dark places.
EXPECTATIONS: Having seen nothing more than a poster before going in, I was curious most of all about what Jackman performance we'd be getting next, after his commendable turn in Les Miserables and even in last July's The Wolverine. Also, who's this French guy I see listed as director for this big studio film with a heavy cast?
Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover: Teeming with testosterone but a master at controlling it, the highly talented Jackman now has paternal desperation as his character's ultimate weapon. Even when Prisoners obviously takes time to show him off, the power behind this character is always genuine. We see it when Jackman wears the face of total emotional exhaustion, but also when he absolutely destroys a sink a hammer. Once again providing extreme emotional diversity, Jackman takes us to wrenching states of mind that most of us may never know, and yet with his performance we understand. Score: 8
Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki: Especially with found-footage cop movie End of Watch not too far behind in his rear view mirror, Gyllenhaal provides a portrayal of a desperately motivated detective who takes life-or-death responsibility constantly into his own hands. He is a fine surrogate into the investigatory half of the story. One can only imagine how much more resonant his typically constructed character would be (we meet him as he's eating Chinese food on Thanksgiving) if his own attributes were provided as more than just a bonus mystery within the story. Score: 6
Paul Dano as Alex Jones: Finally, a casting director has given into stereotyping the albeit boyish-looking Dano as a possible pedophile. But regardless of him being an easy choice, Dano is strong in the type, using skittish neuroses and a strangely gentle high voice to an uncomfortable effect. Dano has us equally questioning whether we should pity or be wary of him, especially as he becomes less and less a human being, and more and more of a martyr for "guilty until proven innocent." Score: 7
Rest of Cast: While Prisoners may be driven by one question, (or one demand), it certainly does allot time for every one of its marquee actors to have a scene in which they express their own dribbling doubt, a tiresome attribute that becomes progressively obvious as the film unveils itself with performances being a slightly higher priority than pace. Bello and Howard fit into this category as side spouses who do little but confirm that the situation within this movie is indeed extremely, extremely heartbreaking. Davis has a part of about the same size, but she manages to stand out considering her circumstances. Score: 6
TALKING: For a script that often does variations on the line "Just tell me where they are!" a lot of important details aren't as repeated or obvious; dialogue is used sparingly when it comes to explaining details. Don't come to Prisoners expecting everything to be perfectly drawn out - a handful of critics were asking each other questions about such details after my screening. Score: 6
SIGHTS: Master cinematographer Roger Deakins creates an epic nightmare in your own backyard with camerawork distinctly and immediately more artful than regular mainstream fare. Without even knowing who the cinematographer is, Prisoners is elevated to unquestionably cinematic with its slow tracking shots, specific framing, and constant foggy coloring. In an unexpected thrill, Prisoners is also able to make a highly intense moment of multiple-lane traffic weaving as one character speeds to the hospital, one of the film's most uncomfortable moments in an already overall claustrophobic experience. Score: 7
SOUNDS: Composer Johan Johansson's score creates some unbearable dread to accompany the much louder and more complicated statements by the film's characters. Within certain moments, Johansson builds his string-heavy orchestra to fine points. But it's the sound design, which uses a couple of thunderous booms in transitions (almost as if over-cautiously making sure all are paying attention), that gets in the way of a smooth aesthetic experience. Score: 7
BEST SCENE: The confrontation between Jackman and Gyllenhaal outside of a liquor store. Not for the screaming, but for the tension between the two.
ENDING: Given the pain already experienced throughout this movie, the slightly ajar door at the end of this story feels even more rough on our spirits. It's expected, but it still hurts.
QUESTIONS: Why is everyone on the police so forgetful about the current status of a former suspect? What's the full story behind this "imitation" concept?
REWATCHABILITY: Prisoners is certainly a rough moviegoing experience, but it is similarly so satisfying that a second viewing doesn't sound completely painful.
Enabled by the success of movies like Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Prisoners does some special things with the tension it easily acquires (making children disappear has an incredible effect on the audience, certainly). Thanks to Villeneuve's pacing, we are embedded with Jackman as he descends into desperation, and we feel the anxiety of the case's narrowing clock as Gyllenhaal tries to make sense of it all.
Constantly denying us the exhale of even a glimpse of the girls after they disappear, Prisoners sets a tense mystery for its bold running time, but by the end of it all doesn't have an entire explanation. This isn't ambiguous lack of explanation (always welcomed), but simply unexplained. For such involving pain that can be felt in the beginning of this film, especially as it starts to harp on some very raw nerves, Prisoners lacks an undeniable tightness. Characters are a bit clumsy within this story in a manner that seeks to service the script more than it does the nightmarish reality a story like Prisoners entirely set on. It's as if the script wants to provide a lack of justice specific to the audience, so that they too can feel what it's like when the characters aren't served the rights they may feel entitled to. Nonetheless, finally emerging from the week-long experience that is Prisoners scratching your head seems to be a negative distraction from the impression that this movie wants to make, especially considering the rich and larger ideas that are at play.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10