Film Review: ‘Prisoners’ Captivates as an Intense and Smart Crime Thriller

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In the tradition of crime procedurals centered on serial killers (such as Se7en and Silence of the Lambs), Prisoners explores the same genre with a similar suspenseful and haunting effect. The film, out in theaters now, has audiences guessing the whodunit mystery up until the very end … and it’s not an easy ride. Prisoners is lengthy—over two-and-a-half-hours long—which means viewers are left on edge for the entire duration of the movie and will still feel jolted long after they’ve left the theater parking lot.

The narrative is reminiscent of the type of pulp crime novels people pick up at an airport kiosk before a flight; however, it is not a book-to-film adaptation, but rather an original screenplay written by TV writer and producer Aaron Guzikowski. The story unfolds with the craftsmanship of a novel, with stylistic fades-to-black whenever a “chapter” (in a sense) concludes. Clues are interspersed throughout, although, never blatant, making viewers feel compelled to take a second look at the film after it’s over. As the audience, it is exhausting at times to be in a perennial state  of fear that the serial killer is lurking around every dark corner, but the story doesn’t only focus on the culprit’s mind. It also digs deep into the human psyche, focusing on what a parent would do for his or her child in the throes of desperation.

Hugh Jackman heads the cast as Kelly Dover, the father of a six-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) who disappears with her friend Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) on Thanksgiving. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal)—who resembles indie rock band Arcade Fire’s lead singer Win Butler with his buttoned-to-the-neck denim shirts and slicked back ebony hair—is the lead on the case. The family is told that he’s solved every case he’s ever been assigned, which unfortunately pegs him in a seemingly two-dimensional “perfect cop” role. The family suspects that the driver of an RV parked nearby their house is the culprit. There is not enough evidence to hold the driver Alex Ward (Paul Dano)—a greasy-haired, soft-spoken, and seemingly mentally-challenged individual—in jail, causing Loki to have to release him from custody. Kelly, the type of person to stash five-years-worth of emergency supplies in his family’s basement, vehemently believes Alex is the key to finding his daughter. He decides to take matters in his own hands along with Joy’s father Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard). For the squeamish, just know there are some torture scenes ahead. Giving any more of the plot would be an injustice to the final reveal.

“How far would you go to save your child?” this film asks. Kelly becomes increasingly morally ambiguous and Jackman’s portrayal of the character is explosive, intense, and fear-inducing. It’s hard to believe that Leonardo DiCaprio was once considered for the same role, as there’s a certain gruffness Jackman bellows out that pushes viewers back in their seats. Even so, Gyllenhaal is the show-stealer, and delivers a role in a similar vein to his detective in 2007’s Zodiac. Prisoners gives little-to-no information about his background; what we do know about Loki is that even though he is stoic, he is not completely unflappable and has developed an eye twitch most likely caused by his career in traumatic homicide investigations. The way Dano plays Alex is done with precision, leaving audiences to teeter on the decision of whether or not he is indeed a serial killer or a helpless nebbish.

Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), in his first English-language feature, captures how a disappearance can affect a suburban town and unravel a once-safe family. The girls’ mothers, Grace Dover (Maria Bello) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) both sink into a depression—one of which starts pill-popping almost instantly. He makes us question whether we would side with Kelly’s violent actions. Villeneuve enlisted Roger Deakins (No Country For Old Men, Skyfall), the ten-time Oscar nominee as his cinematographer for his film, and he successfully painted a gorgeous, yet bleak and gray backdrop, which mirrors the overall mood of Prisoners.

There are twists and turns at every corner of the film, which make for an engaging narrative. However, Prisoners is just too long and could have been easily cut into a shorter film. Villeneuve focuses too much on nihilism and how far “good” people can be pushed to acts of crime, and unfortunately gets lost in these themes. Some of Jackman’s rage-induced speeches on why he has to take matters in his own hands become a little repetitious, as well as the torture scenes. Nevertheless, Prisoners is a wild ride for anyone who enjoys a smart police procedural. The payout in the end is satisfying and people will scramble to find anyone who’s seen the film to discuss the denouement.

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