Director : Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay : Aaron Guzikowski
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2013
Stars : Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Zoe Soul (Eliza Birch), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover), Kyla Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O’Malley), Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor)
Prisoners, a tense morality play wrapped in the bristling genre trappings of a police procedural, is exhausting in all the best ways—emotionally, intellectually, philosophically. It sends out you out of the theater with more questions than answers, even though it satisfies the basic tenets of the whodunit. Set beneath the perpetually chilly, gray skies of Pennsylvania during the week of Thanksgiving, the story revolves around the disappearance of two six-year-old girls—every parent’s worst nightmare—and derives its rhythm from the ever-present ticking clock as the girls’ families sit in agonizing, impotent anticipation while the police track down clues. The parents of the girls—Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis)—respond with expected levels of grief, anger, and frustration, as they know full well that every passing minute chips away at the dwindling chances of ever seeing their daughters again.
The case is turned over to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllanhaal), an intense, highly focused investigator who has apparently never failed to solve a case, although that is little consolation for parents whose children have vanished and whose minds are clouded with the worst possible scenarios. All clues point toward Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a squirrelly, nearly mute young man in square child molester glasses who lives with his reserved aunt (Melissa Leo) and whose RV was last seen in close proximity to where the girls disappeared. The case seems open and shut as soon as Alex is in custody, but then it is revealed that, not only does Alex have the IQ of a 10-year-old, making it highly unlikely he could have pulled off a double abduction in broad daylight, but his RV bears absolutely no traces of physical evidence. Hence, he can only be held for 24 hours and then must be released, which is one of the film’s first points of tension between the law and the characters’ sense of true justice.
Alex’s release does not sit well with Keller, a burly survivalist who was taught to prepare for the worst and is not emotionally equipped to deal with waiting for others to do their work when his little girl is missing. A man of action who has always prided himself on providing for and protecting his family (and is already stressed by the economic downturn), Keller eventually succumbs to his darker inclinations and kidnaps Alex with the intention of forcing him to admit to what Keller is sure he has done. He rationalizes that, because Alex must be guilty, then his actions, however heinous, are justified. If the police can’t find the evidence, Keller will extract a confession, which he goes about with increasing brutality that is directly proportional to the frustration he feels at being, for possibly the first time in his life, incapable of handling a threat. He brings Franklin into his plan, and although Franklin is reluctant, immediately recognizing the ethical and legal jeopardy into which Keller is diving headfirst, he still participates, albeit with a constant look of uncertainty that reflects his divided morality. If Keller is Old Testament Justice in his own mind, Franklin is Doubting Thomas. The men’s wives respond differently, as well, as Grace sinks into a medicated stupor while Nancy, once informed by Franklin of what he and Keller are doing to Alex, takes her own desperate stab at eliciting a confession, substituting threats of violence with tearful pleas, all of which are met with silence just the same.
The elaborate, absorbing screenplay, which was penned by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), interweaves the families’ agony with the intense, albeit not dispassionate, investigation headed by Loki. As played by Gyllenhaal in one of his best performances in recent years, Loki is an enigmatic figure who serves as a traditional point of identification—steely, determined, intelligent, resourceful, dependable—but also carries a sense of mystery that is never quite resolved. With his slicked hair, buttoned-all-the-way-to-the-neck shirts, and facial tics, he seems like a man tightly wound, which is perhaps why he is such a good investigator (“Everything’s important,” he says at one point, which plays as a kind of shorthand for the film’s philosophical view of life). Yet, the unremarked-upon tattoos on his neck and knuckles, as well as allusions in the dialogue to his childhood in a boys’ home, suggests that he comes from a dark background, and perhaps his work as a police investigator is his way of exorcising the demons of his past. Either way, he is very good at tracking down the nefarious elements hidden in the seemingly benign heartland town, which at one point takes him down into a creepy basement that hides a dead body and later into the house of another suspect that is covered with hand-drawn puzzles and writhing with snakes. There is something very nearly Biblical about the imagery at times, which makes it not too surprising that, when the pieces are finally put together, it turns out that the crimes were specifically designed as a rebuke to God.
Director Denis Villeneuve, a French-Canadian making an impressive Hollywood debut, knows that the effectiveness of the material relies on a steady pace that never rushes, yet never lags, either. Just as Loki insists that everything is important, Villeneuve doesn’t waste a single frame, lingering where appropriate and ushering us to the next plot point when the time is right. As a result, the film feels literate and thoughtful, giving room for philosophical rumination, when it easily could have taken on the tenor of a low-rent made-for-TV quickie. Jackman provides the film’s sense of unbridled rage, and his character quickly becomes one of the most complex protagonists we’ve seen in some time, offending us with his misguided sense of righteous justice, but at the same time remaining resolutely sympathetic. We understand his anger and panic, even if we might question the legitimacy of his tactics, something that he does himself when others aren’t looking. Even more so than when he plays Wolverine, Jackman exudes wrath, which makes him such a compelling counterpoint to Gyllenhaal’s cerebral investigator, who also feels the ticking clock but understands that rushing leads to mistakes. In the end, we’re left with a very nearly profound sense of loss that should send every thinking person in the theater into a flurry of self-reflection about his or her own sense of judgment and justice.
Copyright ©2013 James Kendrick
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