I was going to skip going the movies these weekend. But when I found out that director Denis Villeneuve, who gave us the film “Incendies” (an Academy award nominee for best Foreign Language film) had an American crime thriller out called “Prisoners”, I knew I had to see it. Crime thrillers can be absorbing, compelling and intense when a good script is handled by the right director. “Prisoners” is one such film. It asks the hard questions: what would you do if your daughter had been abducted? How far would you go to save her? “Prisoners” is film that defines its title. It manages to provoke a thought, and encourages a reaction from its viewers.
Thanksgiving. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), his wife, Grace (Maria Bello) and their two children, Ralph and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) are spending the holidays with the Birch family (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). But when six-year old Anna Dover and her friend, Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) disappear into the night, panic sets in and the only lead they have is a broken down RV driven by Alex Jones (Paul Dano). The investigation is headed up by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) but it seems like he could find no hard evidence to link Jones to the disappearance. Desperate, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands. In doing so, he faces his own stance on morality and justice. Just how far does one need to go to find his daughter?
The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski has pretty strong ambitions and it delivers in its execution. With the direction, “Prisoners” becomes a tightly-wound thriller, that creates genuine tension as the viewer is brought into the situation through the eyes of its different characters. Most of the film’s focus falls on Keller and Loki, as they appear to be the ones completely committed in finding the missing children. Questions arise whether they are on the right path, if they are truly justified with their actions, and just how their different stances in justice can play a strong part of the film’s core plot. It is a story of familial love and duty, of the duties of justice, and just could drive someone to the limit as to really change his own beliefs.
The film starts off real strong, with some light characterization just before it focuses on the crux of its plot. You get to question the actions of the major characters, the direction carefully planting doubts in the viewers’ minds and at the same time, the script provokes the powerful emotions within its story. The investigation is developed through Loki’s point of view, while Keller and Birch faces their own crisis of conscience. The film does promote a certain feeling of misdirection, and you would feel that the story may not end well. Once you think you may have it figured out, the script then makes one doubt just what they have just seen. The core plot becomes developed carefully and each side of the emotional spectrum is felt through its many plot turns. The screenplay and the direction makes an awful lot of effort in paying attention to the many layers of its plot. The characters become vital points in its many turns, and they appear to be very authentic; they are flawed, they create mistakes in making assumptions due to the emotions that they are feeling. I do have to say that the film’s story was incredibly executed; it comes forth with all the needed emotional devices, credible plot turns to intensify its cinematic experience.
Of course no thriller or crime drama would be successful without strong performances from its cast. Hugh Jackman comes out with a strong performance as a father in turmoil. The emotional confusion and determination comes off real well for his character that it was easy to root for him despite what I was seeing. Gyllenhaal was competent as the determined detective. His character comes off as someone detached and yet very invested in his work. I do have to admit that the supporting cast made some rather nice moves to make the viewer become truly invested in the film’s story. Despite their limited screen time, Maria Bello was amazing as the distraught shattered mother and the performance by Viola Davis as Nancy Birch generated incredible emotions. Terrence Howard also played a key role in the script as the father who tries to create a moral stance, whose own fear and concern leads him into this path. Mellissa Leo and Paul Dano were also amazing with their performances, as they sold their characters well in the script.
The direction does barely hold back with its displays of violence. Most of the them mostly happen off-screen, but the results of its brutality come off quite graphic. The rendition of its atmosphere is pretty simple, which makes it feel even more realistic. The camerawork isn’t that snazzy, but it was easy to be taken by its simple shots. The film may feel a little slow in some areas, but this is a film developed through its storytelling and attention to the dialogue becomes key to its appreciation. The dialogue is well done as it speaks a lot for the characters’ different personalities.
“Prisoners” is a film that has to be seen with almost little knowledge of its story. It is absorbing, engrossing and very powerful with its messages. As human beings, we are all prisoners. We can be prisoners of our own fear, our own beliefs, of our own pride and even a prisoner of our own emotions. The direction created a story that brings forth emotional turmoil around its characters and it even succeeds in bringing a powerful visceral punch. Sometimes, things aren’t always how they appear to be and sometimes, the truth is hiding in plain sight. What it does so well is the fact that it was able to make it feel very authentic, had the right form of misdirection in its narrative and one could really feel that such a thing could happen to anyone. It is a parent’s worst nightmare and indeed, we can all be “Prisoners” in our own way. Highly Recommended. [4 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
By Joan Alperin Schwartz From the moment 'Prisoners', directed by Denis Villeneuve ('Incendies') began, I knew I was about to see a film that was really, really good. And I was not disappointed. In fact, by the time the end-credits rolled, I was actually feeling 'creeped-out (in a good way, if that's possible) and that feeling stayed with me for several hours. The film, written by Aaron Guzikowski ('Contraband') is a … more