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Review: Prisoners

This review originally appeared in my column at Towleroad

Thanksgiving in movies is usually overstuffed with dysfunction and hostility. Who can digest from all the bile at home? That's not the case in PRISONERS, the new dramatic thriller from undersung Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), which is more retrograde in its approach with the family unit as something sacred and continually under attack. Despite the occassional interjection of ominous music (shut up Jóhannsson... there's plenty of time for your score later!) and an initially drab grey color palette, things seem realistically jovial at this get together.

The Dovers (Hugh Jackman + Maria Bello) are celebrating the holiday at the home of the Birches (Terrence Howard + Viola Davis) just down the street -- close enough to walk -- as they clearly do every year (or perhaps they trade off). The parents are realistically both amused and vaguely annoyed by their children, attentive but 'don't bother me' tired. It's only when the film leaves the homes of the Dovers or Birches that there's trouble brewing... somethings just off. Why did the movie open with a father/son hunting trip? Why is that strange RV parked on the road? Where did Anna's (Hugh's daughter) red emergency whistle go? Are Joy and Anna back yet? The two youngest children just went back to the Dovers to grab that red emergency whistle they wanted to p... OHMYGODwhere are Joy and Anna?

The red whistle is not a red herring.

Instead, that damn missing whistle acts as a perfect talisman for the movie itself. Prisoners begins emitting piercing psychic cries as the parents spin out of control and the mysteries thicken and the hours drag on. Statistically speaking, things dont look good for missing children after the first couple of days. Keller Dover (Jackman) is a survivalist who believes in being prepared but how do you prepare yourself or your family for the worst nightmares? When a local ace detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't make a case stick against the man in the RV (Paul Dano, in greasy/creepy mode) Keller decides to take the law into his own hands, plunging both families and a third one (Dano and his aunt played by Melissa Leo) into an increasingly gruesome nightmare from which its uncertain that any of them will emerge with their souls intact.

Prisoners will undoubtedly remind a lot of people of David Fincher's Zodiac (2007), another film that invites you to lose your mind over Jake Gyllenhaal's soulful handsomeness while Jake Gyllenhaal loses his mind over maddening puzzles dropped like poisoned crumbs from serial killers. (Has any actor ever so expertly conveyed "needs a hug" "needs to be left alone" "needs to be cooperated with" or "needs to be kissed" as Jake at his finest.) I mean...

Not a Still from Prisoners

come on.

It's those inescapably big pleading eyes you can get all but lost in. But enough about my husband. Where were we? Yes, these Zodiac comparisons are merely cosmetic.

The film it most calls to mind deep in the marrow is actually Clint Eastwood's Mystic River (2003), both for the starry miserable cast (beloved faces in pain everywhere you look!) and the moral rot of "is that my daughter in theeeerrrrrre?" parental grief and intimations of long ago child abuse. Prisoners also shares with Mystic River a barely noticeable thin sheen of flop sweat, as if every moment could tip over into the risibly pretentious, weighed down by the self-regard of High Art treatment of Low Brow genres. This filmmaking team isn't kidding around: Villeneuve and his editors are giving us everything they've got with the pacing (despite a lengthy running time); famed cinematography Roger Deakins (True Grit, Skyfall) is making sure every wet windshield and flashlight makes the visuals sing; and the actors all attack the material full throttle, though some of them chew scenery with more delicacy than others. My favorites among the cast were Viola Davis (who is, no joke, always perfect. Why can't Hollywood give her leading roles after her sensational work in The Help?), Hugh Jackman (who is too fine and appealing an actor to make this angry dangerous man tip over into the insufferably hateful), David Dastmalchian (who some of you will remember as one of the Joker's henchmen in The Dark Knight) who is both unnerving and weirdly sympathetic as a suspect Loki pursues, and Jake Gyllenhaal himself, who works so hard at making this earnest detective three dimensional that I'd gladly follow him into a whole film franchise of his own.

Prisoners drives so forcefully into its various climaxes of conscience or bodily harm in the final hour that it continually risks running head first into a calamity of silliness (the plot is, how shall we say... baroque) including, quite literally, in a terrible 'there's not much time!' driving sequence to an Emergency Room. We know how that scene is going to turn out (despite plentiful well crafted surprises elsewhere) which makes it embarassingly gratuitous. Yet to the great credit of Prisoners and its strong cast, most of the time you're too tense to think about jumping ship. Or even why you're in the car or where you're going. Most of the time you're content to ride shotgun as it careens through rain-soaked streets or chases its protagonists on foot into their murky labyrinthine moral quandaries or the dimly lit recesses of their souls suburban homes. Prisoners loves to fade to black at crucial moments when you're expecting a release of the tension. That's a fitting flourish for a movie that races so stubbornly and heedlessly towards all of its darkest impulses.

Grade: B
Oscar Chances: Roger Deakins could well get in for Cinematography but I do finally understand what Nick was talking about on the podcast in regards to his work on Skyfall being inconsistent. Deakins is there for the big moments but some of the lighting on his movies seems underthought unless it's a key "setpiece" and then it's suddenly spectacular. It's like he's just ceding control to assistants and  interested again for the 'clip' moments. Beyond cinematography I could see longshot chances happening for Screenplay, Picture, and Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo) depending on how big of a hit it turns out to be at the box office.
MVP: That's easily Jake Gyllenhaal who crafts the most complete character despite the screenplay's totally sketchy take on Detective Loki.

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Reader Comments (22)

Nice review -- I basically agree with all of your thoughts. Jake and Hugh were just stunning in this. Fell in love with Gyllenhaal all over again.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAndrew

Yes! I'm with Andrew. I haven't had a lot of faith in Jake recently (still have not had a chance to see End of Watch). Prisoners reminded me what a wonderful, thoughtful actor he can be. I hope it is a sign he's found his footing and directors are finally keying into his talents.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I was somewhat confused by the ending, regarding the snakes, the second suspect , the nephew, and the Aunt. Who actually did the abduction ? The nephew ? The aunt ? The second suspect seemed to be just a psychopath. Anybody ?

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterIra

I thought this was decent but regularly had pacing problems. It skipped around and followed leads much like Zodiac, making the viewer feel like an active part of the investigation, but some pieces were far too long, certain loose ends were left untied without a real reason, and I was not satisfied with the ending (a shame after such a long lead up). The acting was solid all around, but the editing was a bit of a mess. Also, Jessica Fletcher could do in less than an hour more than anyone in this film could do in two and a half hours.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentereurocheese

LEO really i heard she was in it for just 2 mins.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

mark -- she's in it for a lot longer than 2 minutes :) your source is failing you.

September 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

and your opinion on her,hammt or scene stealer.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

and your opinion on her,hammy or scene stealer.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentermark

I like what Jake has been doing with recent film roles. He was excellent in both "End of Watch," and "Source Code." And other than Fassy, is there any other actor so easy on the eye?

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPatryk

I don't know if I could call this an "ensemble piece" just because Jackman and Gyllenhaal have the meatiest roles and the majority of the runtime; the other actors seem to be relegated to the background (especially Maria Bello). Having said that, I'd like to show some love to Terrence Howard, who was really good in this (albeit in a limited role) and is always consistent in the quality of his performances.

And I agree with you that Gyllenhaal was the MVP of the movie, and his best part in awhile. I liked everything about his character, even down to the gang tattoos and the constant facial tics. The movie wisely didn't delve into his character's backstory, but you could tell that he's gone through/seen some shit in his life.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMDA

I needed your humor on Jakeypoo after watching this. REALLY discturbing to watch. I was confused by the reasons for what happened to, so the ending was a bit too rushed.

I was a lead volunteer in the search for a missing child in the 90's. This is bringing back some bad memories. I won't be recommending this to any parents.

Hollywood, however, take note of that box office and remember that you can make adult films for adults like this, if you put your mind and your money to it.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

I'll be seeing it later this week, but I just wanted to applaud your review writing skills (in general, but also specifically now) for clearly stating the basic premise and the film's strengths and weaknesses WITHOUT getting into major spoiler territory. That's always been one of my favorite things about your reviews, whether I agree with your grade or not.

Anyway, keep up the good work!

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJonny

Patryk -- i always forget about end of watch even though i loved it. yep, you're right. he's on a roll so i hope this means the career is back after the great dimming of prince of persia and a string of non-hits.

Jonny -- thanks. I always try and be careful about that because it's the only reason i don't read ANY reviews before i see a film (which is so hard to do for a film blogger) because too many critics do spoil it. I think there's a time for film reviews that discuss a plot in great detail but i think that time is well after people have had a chance to see the movie.

September 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I was afraid this was going to be too intense for me, and I'd see it with my hands over my face, occasionally peering out. But it was okay.

I think that the very beginning distanced me from the film a bit. When Dover was praying and hunting it made me think of Christopher Hitchens' book, "God is not Great: how religion poisons everything". Then when Dover and his son were in the car, I thought the teenage son was kind of creepy and afraid of his father. So I was disengaged from Dover, and if it hasn't been such a likeable actor like Jackman playing the part, the movie wouldn't have worked as well for me.

In retrospect, yes although her part was small, Viola Davis was perfect. In memory, she remains the most real.

I don't know why Paul Dano did this part. I hope he never does another part like this. These are the kind of career killing parts.

Spoiler speculation

Don't read any more

When Loki was looking through the old files on Dover's father's death, his father was a prison guard (?) who died without leaving a suicide note, leaving a teenage son. Is the implication that Dover killed his father, and became super protective later of his own family?

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commenteradri

mark - "ham" (in queen of jordan voice)

September 23, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Oh Jake Gyllenhaal. Jakey Jake. So cute. Lately I've been thinking a lot about the rise of the newest generation of male stars from Jake to Ryan Gosling to Logan Lerman to Michael B. Jordan and Michael Fassbender, and I wonder if I'm the only who's seeing this as kind of a moment. For several years there we were totally bereft of male stars of any kind of substance (I think of it as the Ryan reynolds era), but I think these men have been quietly redefining, reexamining, reevaluating what it means to be a man in the 21st century in America. It's the new masculinity, a masculinity in conflict between personal vulnerability and social expectation, and I think Jake is just a natural embodiment of this moment with those puppy dog eyes of his. Very happy to see him return to roles that challenge him, but even happier to see him return to roles that play with this dynamic.

September 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTB

That ending made me FURIOUS! I hate endings like that. Other than that, the cast was top notch. The film was too damn long. Viola Davis really needs a starring vehicle stat. Roger Deakins is a genius. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal in the same film? In the words of the great Minny Jackson, "ya'll give me heart palpitations!" My MVP was Leogend, but you already would have known that if you know me well enough. :) But that awful ending did its best to ruin this film for me.

September 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

Dorian, do you mean the ending or THE ENDING ENDING? Not wanting to spoil it, obviously. I thought the very absolute ending was wonderful and in keeping with the rest of the movie.

Loved this film, which I just saw tonight. Jackman is just excellent, as is Gyllenhaal once you get past the hair and the twitchy blinking tick he does. And for a two and a half hour movie it really does fly by. And agreed on the actor who played the second suspect. So good. That face was so very expressive.

I could totally see this getting one of those FLIGHT style screenplay nominations if the category proves fluid enough. I'd actually quite like it in the mix for best picture and actor, too.

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn

Glenn & Dorian -- i also loved the absolute ending (i.e. the final brief scene) but the finale itself, I can see why people would take issue here or there.

TB -- well said. that gap between no leading men of substance and then a whole slew of them has happened before. i think it's a natural cycle and it usually involves both the slow fade of the previous generation's major stars (which can be very slow if they've managed their careers well) and the gap between generational shifts which leads to things like redefinitions of masculinity as you're saying... and Hollywood's trouble bridging shifts it doesn't understand. Whenever they're just like "HERE YOU GO" about some random good looking person without anything like star magnetism you can feel them doing the math '-- they want someone young and they like good-looking and this and that... right? -- as if they forget that the equation for true stars and leading men (or women) also involves things like Originality, Soul, and Memorability... not just good looks.

adri -- totally agreed that without Hugh in that role, the movie is much harder to stomach, but that's why i think it's such great casting. He is so damn likable that you don't want these things to be true of him.

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterNathaniel R

The ending as in the very last scene (before the end credits rolled) between the leads. Hated it SO much. There were many vocal audience groans over that too BTW. The lady beside me for example said " I didn't like that ending at all."

September 26, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDorian

Jake was the best thing about this long grium thriller. If the film had concentrated on him and cut out all the torture porn Wolverine stuff.

September 29, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

Movie sucks dick. Very suspenseful beginning but terrible ending. One of the most disappointing films I've seen. Ever. Oh, and it sucks.

December 23, 2013 | Unregistered Commentergavin

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