Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano
Release date: September 20th, 2013
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 153 minutes
Best part: Roger Deakins’ cinematography.
Worst part: The overt religious symbolism.
The 2013/14 Oscar season is chock-a-block with alluring crime-thrillers, docudramas, and fantasy-action romps. With crime flicks including The Counselor and Captain Phillips on the horizon, these big guns may, unfortunately, overshadow Prisoners. Despite the been-there-done-that premise, this detective-thriller contains many noteworthy aspects. With its dynamic performances, chilling moments, and ingenious visuals, this movie should, at least, be placed among each year’s seemingly hundreds of Best Picture nominees.
With many big-name directors and actors attached to this material during its time in Hollywood’s ‘blacklist’, this engaging and discomforting movie should’ve arrived earlier in this underwhelming year of celluloid. As a potent cure for a blockbuster season hangover, this expansive crime-thriller carries its weight whilst delivering a thought-provoking narrative. This procedural drama begins with a conservative look at the quaint middle-class American lifestyle many strive for. Carpenter and small business owner Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) leads a meticulous and peaceful existence. Teaching his children in the ways of his strict honour code, Dover runs a tight ship within his picturesque household. When Dover and his family, rounded out by wife Grace (Maria Bello), visit the Birch family, led by Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), for thanksgiving, they rejoice in the thrills of their enviable lives. However, everything hurriedly turns sour when the two families’ youngest members, Anna and Joy, go missing. One excruciating day passes after another, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), along with Pennsylvania’s finest, thoroughly search the state for the two children. With lead suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) continually being released from custody, Dover takes the law into his own hands. Running into Alex’s aunt Molly (Melissa Leo), Dover and Loki butt heads while vital clues remain scattered throughout the sleepy town.
Despite the trailers’ brave attempts to spoil this well-crafted crime-thriller, the marketing, thankfully, leaves out the movie’s many disturbing twists and turns. Comparing this detective-thriller to such TV dramas as Law and Order and The Killing does not do it justice. Prisoners is significantly greater than a by-the-numbers crime-drama because it focuses on its most accessible and intriguing aspects. The A-list cast and crew lend their talents to this darkly sickening thriller to deliver a blood-curdling and tension-filled Oscar contender. Prisoners taps into the First World and dismantles it from its core. Over the course of its exhaustive two and a half hour run-time, the movie’s media-and-law-abiding setting, establishing the familiar traits of the Dover and Birch households, is thoroughly examined. Prisoners bravely emphasises the things that force people to turn against one another. Within the opening scenes, the families enjoy a sumptuous and comforting time together – playing popular tunes, laughing heartily, and holding one another tightly. However, once the first rain storm hits, the narrative sends the characters and audience into an emotional tailspin. Prisoners boldly attempts to determine who, out of the criminals lurking the dour streets or victims who overturn the law, are the real ‘prisoners’ within this movie’s naturalistic yet troubling populous. Containing similar plot-points and themes to Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone, Prisoners lands its punches similarly to those influential and moody kidnap-dramas. Similarly to Denis Lehane and Cormac McCarthy’s seminal works, Prisoners presents a tabloid media-like situation in meticulous and graphic detail. Despite the overt messages and graphic nature, this crime-drama delivers on its many audacious promises.
Despite its conquering story and gripping sequences, Prisoners falls flat whenever it relays its fear-inducing messages. Aiming to explore the First World’s obsession with anti-heroes, paranoia, and the media, the movie’s themes land with a heavy thud. As each character switches from good to bad and vice versa, the movie’s unsettling religion vs. atheism debate lingers unnecessarily. Frequently discussing religion’s power over large groups, the movie’s Bible-thumping nature soon becomes cringe-worthy. Prisoners also continually emphasises the angels and demons scrounging throughout the maze-like labyrinth. Comparing several of the Bible’s influential verses to the characters’ shocking actions and consequential decisions, Prisoners occasionally struggles to depict its profound shades of grey. Thankfully, the movie’s powerful visual style smooths over the narrative’s crevasses. Director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) effectively unleashes the story and setting’s grittiness upon the audience. Beyond the town’s recognisable layout, the landscape’s seedy underbelly, illustrated by dirt-covered vistas and rain-soaked streets, becomes a villainous character in itself. This subtle yet powerful visual style succeeds during the torture sequences. The dilapidated interiors and bone-crunching violence heighten the movie’s tension-inducing moments. Let’s not forget that Prisoners‘ visual style largely comes to life because of Roger Deakins’ punishing and controlled cinematography. Lending each rainstorm, snow-covered setting, and sparsely lit area a profound purpose, Deakins develops an immaculate stronghold over every scene. Zooms and pans elevate even the movie’s most sombre moments. Despite the movie’s wavering pace and bizarre quirks, the distinct sound design and purposeful editing pushes the audience into this emotionally bruising and visceral roller-coaster ride.
“He’s not a person anymore. No, he stopped being a person when he took our daughters.” (Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), Prisoners).
Any discussion of Prisoners should include coverage of the ambiguous and amoral characters. These people, though likeable in some respects, are scummy and refuse to admit fault. Despite some characters’ absurd characteristics, many of them hauntingly transition from humans to animalistic cretins. As the movie progresses, the characters’ intriguing tendencies switch from fascinating to horrifying to justifiable. Carrying the movie’s religious symbolism, the contrasting story-lines, revolving around Dover and Loki, boost this intricate crime-thriller. Dover is a force of nature unafraid to fight for his ‘tribe’. He, transitioning from stern father to malicious avenger, resembles many of modern entertainment’s most masculine and vicious characters. Embracing crucial anti-hero characteristics, Jackman delivers an Oscar-worthy performance. Throwing his nice-guy persona aside for this polarising character, Jackman’s purposeful mannerisms and thundering cries illuminate the character’s emotional torment. After his career-defining turn in Les Miserables, his performance here should garner him a second successive Oscar nomination. As the other side of the same battered coin, Loki’s unsettling interior is replicated on the outside. With slick hair, religious tattoos, and a sketchy persona, the symbolism is, literally and figuratively, worn on his sleeve. As the befuddled yet determined cop on the challenging case, Loki’s slight arrogance and by-the-book methodologies land him in trouble with outrageous cops and criminals. Gyllenhaal’s courageous turn elevates this disturbed character’s journey. Dano and Howard deliver brave performances in small turns. Unfortunately, Bello and Davis are under-utilised in silly and irritating roles.
As a haunting drama-thriller that throws the audience into a moral black hole, Prisoners made me ask myself the question: “What would I do if I were in their position?”. This intriguing movie lurches into polarising areas to deliver a confronting yet entertaining examination of humanity in its darkest hour.