Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
You may like this if you like: Zodiac (David Fincher, 2007), Insomnia (Christopher Nolan, 2002), Mystic River (Clint Eastwood, 2003)
When the Dover and Birch families celebrate thanksgiving in their quiet suburban neighbourhood all is well until the families’ two youngest daughters go outside and do not return. After frantic searching, panic and fear sets in and the only lead they have is a worn out RV that was parked in their street that the two girls had earlier played on. The police track down the driver of the RV (Dano) and bring him in for questioning. Leading the investigation is detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), however the RV is clean and the driver, who has the IQ of a ten year old is let go. As hours and days pass, one of the girls fathers, Keller Dover (Jackman) a man that prides himself on always being prepared decides to take the investigation into his own hands. Meanwhile, Loki a likewise proud man who always solves every case pursues every possible way to solve which seems an impossible case. As both men push themselves further and the lines between moral and immoral blur, both men are faced with impossible choices and, especially in Keller’s case, the question: How far can and should someone go when protecting their family?
I must confess that the trailer for prisoners did not exactly grip me, and the running time of 153 minutes slightly put me off. However I decided to see it by myself in a cinema that contained two other people and I am most certainly glad I decided to do so. Prisoners is one of the darkest and emotionally draining big budget ($46million) films of the year, but it is a gripping, compelling and extremely well made thriller that I thoroughly recommend. In what is his first English language film, Denis Villeneuve has created an extremely atmospheric and absorbing film that will stay with you for a long time. Roger Deakin’s cinematography creates an unforgiving and both physically and emotionally cold world that immediately sucks us in. This is only enhanced by Jóhann Jóhannsson’s subtle but emotionally rich score and Aaron Guzikowski’s water tight to the point of suffocating script.
Indeed, despite the running length, it is a very tight and economical script of the highest standard. This is not a film that feels physically as long as it actually is and Guzikowski treats the audience with respect and keeps a consistent pace. Where lesser writers would involve too much exposition dialogue and scenes, any scene where we know how it will pan out, or where one character has to explain something to another character are all cut out as the audience does not need to see it. We know it will happen and how, and Guzikowski has the respect for the intelligence of the audience to know this. I must confess it is surprising that a film of this combined genre and budget has been allowed to have such a running time, but I cannot emphasise enough how much I am glad this was allowed. The tension and atmosphere is sometimes unbearable, but so it should be. This could only be the case if the script and story are given the sufficient freedom of such a running time.
The combination of running time and exceptional screenwriting also allow the characters sufficient time to develop, an essential element of the narrative. Jackman and Gyllenhaal deliver some of their best ever work on screen, providing relatable characters that we completely understand and we are placed right in their impossible situations. Jackman himself gives a performance that in my view deserves an Oscar nomination, he loves his family and the fact his daughter has been taken makes him feel so utterly helpless and desperate. Though this is a character that would not want anyone to sympathise with him, it is credit to Jackman that we do truly understand his internal conflicts and external aggression. Though little is said about Gyllenhaal’s character, there are enough hints to suggest that he has demons of his own. With Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s testosterone filled performances dominating the screen, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terence Howard as Keller’s wife and the other girl’s family respectively are very much bit part players, but are excellent and effective in the little screen time they get. Paul as the seemingly simple suspect and Melissa Leo as his aunt are excellent too. The fact Dano is very effeminate compared to the alpha males of Jackman and Gyllenhaal may seem generic and clichéd, but work perfectly in the context of the story.
As the narrative develops and the overbearing sense of dread increase these two men and us the audience are presented with increasing questions involving the importance of religion, morality, masculine pride and if evil is indeed required to combat evil. Once again, nothing is over explained as we the audience are left to make up our own minds. It is subtle lines of dialogue that sometimes have huge consequences: Such as a tearful and desperate Maria Bello turning away and saying to an already conflicted Jackman “I thought you would protect us from anything”. These are characters we can relate to are faced with an unbearable situation, and as the narrative develops we do genuinely ask ourselves what we would do, but also breathe a sigh of relief it is not us. These characters genuinely have the best of intentions behind their actions, but when an individual is desperate and over emotional this can have disastrous consequences.
Due to the extremely high standards set by the first two thirds (and this criticism is a footnote, trust me) it was always going to be hard to maintain that high standard in the final third. Some plot strands do tend to venture into the territory of generic, and of course there is the occasional moment when a police officer finds a clue by chance. Though the plot is of course important, what lies at the heart of Prisoners is its main themes, and the very poignant and troubling questions it poses. However, where lesser films may have descended into really cheesy and predictable moments, it is a credit to all involved that these moments are generally avoided and Prisoners is a film that tightly grips and engages until its (in my view) very satisfying conclusion.
Exhausting and unforgiving but compelling and rewarding, Prisoners is an expertly crafted and acted human drama that will both grip you throughout its narrative and haunt you for days afterwards. It is a deeply involving thriller that sets a high standard other films of this genre should aspire to.