If you’ve seen the trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s new movie “Prisoners” and you’re a little angry that it appears to spoil much of the movie, I can now happily say, having seen the whole movie, that there’s nothing to worry about. Yes, the trailer does give away some important plot points (if you can avoid seeing any trailers that would be your best bet) but it only scratches the surface.
The movie is a kidnapping drama/thriller but it’s also much more than that. The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is multilayered and full of plenty of twists and turns not seen in the trailer and Villeneuve’s blunt, restrained handling of the picture will—excuse the cliché—actually keep you on the edge of your seat.
“Prisoners” begins on a calm and peaceful note, probably the only peaceful moment in the entire movie. Two families--the Dovers, led by Keller and Grace (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birchs, led by Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), along with their kids--gather for a meal. This is a happy occasion, but there’s also a sense of dread looming over the whole ordeal. You can tell something bad is going to happen and sure enough the young daughters in both families suddenly go missing. Keller’s oldest son remembers seeing a mysterious RV parked near their house, but it’s gone now.
Instead of spending too much time on this moment and letting the movie turn into a melodramatic Life Time kidnapping drama (thankfully we don’t get a long sequence where either mother breaks out into tears and goes around shouting “where is my daughter?”) Villeneuve keeps the action moving and switches over to Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the loner detective who’s assigned to the case. Within hours after the kidnapping is reported he tracks down the RV and the first suspect Alex (a wonderfully creepy and pitiful Paul Dano) is brought in, but the girls are still missing.
He seems to fit the kidnapper bill at first; he’s creepy looking and mentally unstable, plus what was he doing driving that RV around by himself in a neighborhood where he doesn’t live? Or does he? Immediately your mind starts asking questions. Alex is the first suspect and usually in mysteries the first suspect is never the perpetrator, right? Or, is that what Villeneuve and Guzikowski want us to think? We find out that Alex has the IQ of a ten year old and is looked after by his aunt Holly (an almost unrecognizable Melissa Leo). He looks pathetic and incapable of hiding two girls, but what if this is all an act? What if he’s much smarter than he appears to be? From there the plot thickens, Villeneuve gradually unravels Guzikowski’s complex screenplay, and the tension and sense of dread slowly increase.
“Prisoners” is by no means a happy movie; its tone remains rather cold and morose for the duration of its running time. Gray, cloudy skies and pouring rain dominate the movie’s small town setting. There are a few minor moments of humor but overall it’s treated very seriously, as it should be. Child abduction is a serious matter. This of course won’t appeal to everyone’s tastes but I appreciated the fact that Villeneuve doesn’t overplay the emotions and dramatics in any scene. He never uses one bit of melodrama; everything feels grounded in reality and is presented straightforwardly. Johann Johannsson’s score is used subtly and sparingly, mainly to amp up the tension. There is some cringe-worthy violence but not a lot and it never feels exploitive; Villeneuve shows us just enough to warrant a reaction and then cuts away.
At times during some of the most dramatic and tense moments, the audience at the advanced screening I attended would burst out laughing, not because the scenes were poorly made, but because they made you uneasy, sort of like when you laugh during a tense moment in a horror movie. “Prisoners” contains some horror movie moments (a scene involving boxes of snakes towards the end) and it does make you feel uncomfortable at times, but that’s a good thing.
The film’s pace might also be a little too deliberate for some general audience members, and at two and a half hours it is long. But in this age of fast paced thrillers it’s nice to see a mainstream movie that’s as patient as “Prisoners.” Villeneuve isn’t in a hurry to get through the story. Instead of just presenting a clue or a plot point and then quickly moving on to the next one, Villeneuve slows down and lets us examine the situation for ourselves and come up with our own answers before going on. Villeneuve, along with master cinematographer Roger Deakins (who’s done a number of Coen brothers movies) stage each scene delicately and gracefully. It’s a relief to see a movie with smooth pans and tracking shots, as opposed to shaky handheld camera ones we’ve been seeing a lot of lately.
While detective Loki is off pursuing various leads, Keller is also looking for his daughter, but in a different way. “Prisoners” is as much a character study about Keller—a decent family man who descends into depression and darkness—as it is a kidnapping/rescue thriller. Keller is, after all, the head of the family and he feels like he’s let everyone down. Now he feels obligated to search for his daughter in any way he can. The film asks the questions: how far would you go to find someone you love? And would you operate outside the law? Loki is doing the best he can but he also has to operate within the judicial system, a system filled with many rules and technicalities. Keller is impatient and wants to find answers his way.
In this regard, the characters in “Prisoners” do a lot of acting on their emotions (on their gut reactions) instead of assessing the situations logically. When Alex is released from the police due to lack of evidence, Keller kidnaps and tortures him in an abandoned house without even thinking about the repercussions. He’s driven solely by his guilt and determination to rescue his daughter. This is probably the darkest character Jackman has ever played.
Much like his character in David Fincher’s own dark, complex crime thriller “Zodiac,” Gyllenhaal’s Loki is dedicated and humble but develops an almost unhealthy obsession with the case. He uses unorthodox interrogation methods and enters houses forcefully. Sometimes this aggressive method pays off and at other times it doesn’t, like when he pushes another unstable suspect to suicide during an interrogation. This is some of the best acting work both Gylenhaal and Jackman have ever done, both actors immersing themselves in their roles, not afraid to show us the darker, more visceral parts of their characters.
There are a few minor weak parts in “Prisoners,” specifically the fact that the wife characters aren’t given a whole lot to do. Bello makes the most of her few scenes but for the most part she spends the majority of the movie lying in bed acting depressed and except for one scene where she’s included in some of the major activity, Davis is also left to sit around and a wait for the men to bring her child home. Even so, “Prisoners” is still an outstanding movie, and a far more complex one than the trailers would suggest.
It won’t be for everyone (despite the many recognizable names in the cast); it’s downbeat and not always easy to watch, but then again should a movie always have to be upbeat and easy to watch? If a film can make you uncomfortable while at the same time keeping you invested and on edge, then I’d call that a success.