“We do not give up on your sister!”
Common sense seems to lend itself to the idea that with every passing day that goes by in a child abduction, the fear of the worst increases exponentially. Every moment matters, and for Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello), and friends/neighbors Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis), they become unfortunate Prisoners of time. On Thanksgiving afternoon, both of the family’s youngest daughters Anna, and Joy, have been taken away from them.
Only a mysterious RV parked on the street where the families reside is the only lead that Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a detective who has solved every case he has been assigned to, has. All evidence, in the eyes of Keller, points to the driver of the RV, mentally challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano). With the police unable to do more than the law allows, Keller chooses to head his own investigation, to which there are no ceilings or depths he won’t break through–or sink to—in an effort to locate his daughter.
There is the horror that comes from the macabre, the supernatural, the slasher, etc. These types of horror can be scary and effective, but sometimes, they don’t stick with the viewer. There is something about using real-life scenarios that really gets under one’s being. In the case of the film Prisoners, it can’t be classified as a horror, but an argument can be made that it is more unsettling, and even, horrific than the common horror film.
Yours truly is not a parent, but the thought of having a son or daughter abducted with little to no trace of where they are has to be rank up as one of the more frightening things that could happen to one’s child, only under seeing them get killed right in front of you. Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, is permeated with a consistent feeling of dread throughout.
From the 10 minute mark on, the movie is unsettling, and a big part of that is a result of the miserable and depressing environment that Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins choose to exhibit, punctuated by the neverending overcast skies and the torrential downpour. Tone is set early and is never lost. But it isn’t just the usage of the environment to accentuate the story, sometimes it is the simple use of how a subject is focused on for seconds on end while another one is talking. It is a small touch, but a touch that made me feel like I wasn’t watching a movie here and there.
The screenplay is well-written, with possibly only a very, very, tiny bit of overwriting in the middle. Runtime could be a problem for some, but the story is enthralling and has more than enough from the 10-minute mark to the end. Thematically, and symbolically, it gets under the skin as well, and offers another layer of heavyness, unease, and contemplation (Check out this spoiler-filled but detailed article that you may or may not agree with at Vigilant Citizen). Any mystery has a massive challenge of being unpredictable, and though there will always be people can snap all of the pieces together before the end (70% of the time I’m incorrect on my educated guesses), the misdirects will likely prevent most from getting it right. As another credits to the writing, the pieces and misdirects never feel contrived.
A superstar cast does nothing less than stellar work. Perhaps the most scary thing about Prisoners is Hugh Jackman’s performance. Not scary as in he did a bad job, but scary because when watching, it is unnerving to think that maybe, just maybe, one would go about things exactly as he does if they found themselves in the exact same situation with all indications pointing to one person. Another interesting aspect of the character that makes how he goes about finding justice frightening is the fact that though he and his friend’s daughter are both missing together, he is only shown to care about his own daughter. To some this could be considered a writing oversight, but it feels intentional and implies that we (humans) can be rather myopic despite our efforts not to be. Don’t mistake his one-note character emotion of anger as evidence that he has no layers; the layers just dissipate in this situation. Keller is a representation of impulse, like most would be, here.
His polar opposite is represented in Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki. Where Keller is unhinged, Loki is methodical. He’s as mysterious and as layered as the case he is trying to solve, and yet, his character carries a level of trust that no one else possesses. Gyllenhaal loses himself yet again in a role that for most other actors, may have been overshadowed by Jackman’s intensity in his character. Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard are all talented pros and bring what is expected to the table, and even smaller roles played by guys like David Dastmalchian and Len Cariou are noteworthy.
Years later, it still is baffling that Prisoners did not get the love at the 86th Academy Awards like it should have, in my humble opinion. Thrillers, and films as a whole, don’t get much better. Not an easy view, or one that can be viewed numerous times, but nonetheless a view that remains arresting each time out.
Photo credits go to IMDB.com, vigilantcitizen.com, movieloci.com, and thewrap.com.
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