Movie and Film Reviews (MFR) Mystery,Thrillers Movie Review of ‘Prisoners’ (2013)

Movie Review of ‘Prisoners’ (2013)

A refreshing change of pace following 2013’s summer blockbuster season, Prisoners is an intense morality tale which plays out as a twisty police procedural thriller, exhibiting more sophistication and artistry than one would expect from a story like this. Helmed by Denis Villeneuve (making his Hollywood debut) and written by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), the film is multilayered and smart, proving to be an emotionally, mentally and philosophically fatiguing experience. While it seems like a straightforward whodunit on the surface, Prisoners is more concerned with the effects that a kidnapping case has on the picture’s main players. The movie does clock in at almost two-and-a-half hours, but it earns every captivating frame.

To celebrate Thanksgiving, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) visit friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), letting their respective children interact and play with one another. But not much attention is given to the youngest daughters of each of the families, who suddenly go missing after venturing outside without parental supervision. The case is assigned to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a seasoned, focused police investigator who has solved every crime that he has investigated. Arresting the mentally handicapped Alex Jones (Paul Dano) as a suspect, Loki unfortunately has no concrete evidence to keep the boy locked up. When Alex is released, Keller goes crazy, abducting the suspect to torture him for information in secret. As Loki persists with his investigation, Keller sees Alex as his only hope of getting the girls back, yet he might be wrong and time is fast running out.

There is not a trace of Hollywood artifice within any of the characters, as they all feel like realistic, fallible human beings. If another team of filmmakers told this story, Keller would unquestionably be the hero – a strong, smart, muscular presence who kicks ass and saves the girls. But Prisoners isn’t like that, and this is no ego trip for Jackman. Deconstructing the invincible father figure seen in Taken and 24, Jackman’s Keller is initially depicted in a sympathetic light, but gradually transforms into a monstrous brute, and it’s a huge achievement on the part of both Jackman and the screenplay that his voyage to the dark side is gripping and plausible. This is arguably Jackman’s best performance to date, a nuanced and focused portrait of a broken man struggling to deal with his emotional grief. Likewise, Gyllenhaal rediscovers the gravitas and maturity we witnessed in End of Watch, turning in a credible performance that lets you forget that you’re even looking at the actor. It’s an immersive turn from Gyllenhaal, and he looks in tune with the material and his character at all times. Fortunately, the supporting cast could not be any better. Dano is especially chameleonic, disappearing into the role of Alex and effortlessly selling his character’s mental disabilities. Melissa Leo, Maria Bello and Viola Davis provide solid support as well, while Terrence Howard submits his best work in years.

The pairing of director Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (SkyfallTrue Grit) was truly a match made in cinematic heaven, making for a visually striking thriller thick in atmosphere. Prisoners is set beneath the perpetually chilly, gloomy, often rainy skies of Pennsylvania, and the sense of place is immaculately established through Deakins’ meticulous photography. He captures the texture of both the season-specific atmosphere and small-town milieu, and the composition and framing is genuinely breathtaking throughout. Furthermore, Villeneuve clearly knew that pacing is a major factor in the effectiveness of a mystery like this, and he acts appropriately – Prisoners lingers when it’s suitable, and moves onto the next scene or plot point when the time feels right. The director excels at tension as well, assembling a handful of incredibly nail-biting scenes during which this reviewer felt wholly invested in the on-screen proceedings. The initial realisation that the girls are missing is heart-wrenching stuff, and it’s hard to tear your eyes away from the screen during pivotal scenes later into the story. In lesser hands, Prisoners would be a low-rent, made-for-television affair, but it’s a visual and aural masterpiece in the hands of this filmmaking team.

Astonishingly, the trailers for Prisoners have actually been holding out on us, as they only shed light on the first third of the picture, establishing the basic set-up but refusing to show much more. It’s wonderful to report that the full movie is darker and denser than expected, balancing the stories of the entire ensemble as the screenplay examines how the various characters deal with their grief. Although some viewers may solve the mystery before the big reveal happens,Prisoners doesn’t live and die by its ability to surprise you. What matters the most here is the journey, and Villeneuve has put together an involving, emotionally gruelling thriller which never loses momentum despite its intimidating length. Unfortunately, the story’s conclusion is not entirely successful, jettisoning the intelligence of the rest of the picture in favour of theatrics right out an episode of a standard police procedural drama. It’s not a deal-breaker, but a darker, tauter climax might’ve made for an overall superior product.

While aspects of the picture’s climax are silly, the film’s final scene cannot be criticised. It may be angering or disappointing to those expecting an ending which ties everything up neatly, but it’s the perfect conclusion for those who enjoy having something to chew on and ponder once a film ends. Prisoners does commit a few sins, and it’s probably not revolutionary enough to attract attention at the Oscars, but its flaws can be overlooked due to the impeccable filmmaking and the otherwise smart scripting. It’s haunting and gripping viewing, with its thematic density and top-flight acting ensuring that it will not be easily forgotten.

8.3/10

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