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New Review: Prisoners (2013)

Updated on October 3, 2013

Director: Denis Villenueve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo

It's been two days since I've seen the incredibly grim thriller Prisoners, and I'm still not sure what to think of it. The movie has already generated some Oscar buzz, and in terms of the acting, it isn't difficult to see why. This is a flawlessly acted thriller, skillfully directed by Denis Villenueve, and featuring scenes of real power (this is especially true of the film's chillingly ambiguous final scene). It's basically a good movie that had the potential for greatness, but a leaden pace and a strained motivation behind the crime prevents it from reaching its goal.


The less you know about the plot going in, the better. Two little girls go missing on a bleak Thanksgiving day. The evidence points to a creepy young man named Alex (Paul Dano), whose dilapidated RV was seen loitering in the neighborhood where the girls were taken. He's arrested, but since there's no physical evidence inside the RV, and since the guy has the mental capacity of a 10 year old, the authorities are given no choice but to let him go. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) assures the families that every option is being pursued in the case. Unfortunately, that's not good enough for Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), father of one of the missing girls, and so he takes the law into his own hands by kidnapping and torturing Alex until he reveals what he did to the children.

"Are you saying I wasn't good in Les Mis?!?! Are you saying my singing voice was bad!?!?!"
"Are you saying I wasn't good in Les Mis?!?! Are you saying my singing voice was bad!?!?!"

It's a fairly harrowing topic, certainly the worst nightmare of any parent, and what works best about Prisoners is the realistic and complex way it shows how such a tragedy affects the families of the victims. The domestic scenes inside the Keller household, where we see Keller's wife Grace (Maria Bello) turn into an emotional wreck, are painful in their sincerity, as is the wrenching scene where Viola Davis' Nancy (as the mother of the other missing girl) takes a more humane approach in getting Alex to confess. The heart of the movie, however, is Jackman's Keller, a survivalist and devout Christian who practically implodes under the strain.


It's not easy to watch half of the things he puts Alex through, but Hugh Jackman brings so much intensity and depth to the role that it's equally difficult to look away. Seen as neither a righteous avenger or a crazy nut job, Keller is basically a good man whose hand is ultimately forced to do things that wouldn't normally enter his mind. We see the pain on his face the longer he torments Alex, and when he finally reaches the point of no return, we're treated to a truly heartbreaking moment where he starts to pray the Our Father but finds it impossible to say “as we forgive those who trespass against us.”

The movie adds extra layers when Keller makes Nancy's husband Franklin (Terence Howard) an accessory to the kidnapping by coming clean to him about the crime. Franklin may not participate in brutalizing Alex, but he does turn a blind eye to the young man's suffering and allows Keller to nearly kill him. At one point, he's given the chance to set him free, but is immediately stopped by his wife, who believes that Keller is in the wrong, but also thinks that he should continue doing what he's doing if it means finding their kids.

Gyllenhaal can't seem to tame the Wolverine in "Prisoners"
Gyllenhaal can't seem to tame the Wolverine in "Prisoners"

It's all dark and grueling stuff, but it adds to the movie's theme about how those wounded by the evil of others will, in turn, commit atrocities of their own. Everyone has the potential to do evil, even the best of us, and Villenueve expresses that idea with poignancy and conviction. He also crafts a number of thrilling set-pieces, including a home invasion sequence halfway through and a frightening and (rightly) protracted scene where Gyllenhaal has to race through a crowded freeway during a nighttime sleet shower. The acting is terrific across the board (special mention must be made of Melissa Leo, who plays Alex's supportive aunt), and the always great cinematographer Roger Deakins creates a chilly and creepy atmosphere in gray and blue colors.


With that said, Prisoners still manages to come up short. While the movie is never really boring, the film's pace is often times so ponderous that not only does it drag in spots, but it also gives the audience enough time to pick at a few nagging narrative gaffes (the scene where Loki interrogates a priest, played by Len Cariou, with a few skeletons in his closet is frustrating because of what Loki doesn't ask). The explanation we're also made to swallow in the end feels more than a little forced, and is revealed because the perpetrator, for some reason, feels the need to let their future victim know why everything happened.


It's kind of disheartening to watch these slips happen, because overall, Prisoners has a lot going for it. It's never easy to watch a movie aim for the stars and fall short of its goal, especially when it comes as close as Prisoners does. But for a movie that's simply just good, the movie does make a lasting impression. It won't be easily forgotten, and after a truly depressing summer movie season, it does satisfy those looking for films with a little more edge to them.

*** (out of ****)

What are your thoughts on the film? :)

4 out of 5 stars from 1 rating of Prisoner's Movie

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