Release Date: September 20, 2013
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
MPAA Rating: R
What stands out about Prisoners is the film’s incredible restraint.
With its talented cast and gripping story – which centers around two missing little girls – it would have been easy to amp up musical score, let the actors dial it up to 11 and present a pounding drama that tugs at the heartstrings of every last audience member. But instead, director Denis Villeneuve lets the story breath, trusting his actors and the story to do their job without resorting to cinematic tricks to dial up the tension.
As a result, the audience is given time to casually meet the two families involved and form a connection with them before their little girls go missing. And when the girls do disappear, the steady, no-frills pacing forces the audience to wallow in their suffering. You feel the loss of these two little girls acutely. You are in there with their families, instead of simply being a voyeur watching this all unfold from a safe distance. You truly feel their heartache.
This is necessary for the film to work because this is a film that deals in shades of gray. Hollywood has presented a lot of revenge thrillers, including ones about parents hunting down the kidnappers and dishing out vigilante justice to them. But that’s not what Prisoners is about. In the film, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) does go out on his own in an effort to track down the person responsible for his daughter’s disappearance, but it’s not presented as heroic or cathartic. Instead the audience is left to question what this man is doing and how they should feel about it, never feeling entirely comfortable with his actions, though never quite vilifying him for them either.
Making matters messier is that there is a hero cop doing everything he can to solve the case. Normally in a film where a family member goes rogue in an effort to find justice, its because the system has failed them. But Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an honest cop just trying to find these two little girls and solve the case. He’s patient with Keller and understands the man’s agony, but Keller still feels like he isn’t moving fast enough and that he isn’t focused in on the man Keller is convinced is behind the kidnapping, a mentally unbalanced guy named Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who was parked in a RV on the street at the time Keller’s daughter and her friend went missing.
The film features some fantastic performances by its impressive cast. Jackman and Gyllenhaal are unsurprisingly good in the lead roles, though Gyllenhaal made the choice to have Detective Loki constantly blinking when he’s uncomfortable in a situation, which personally I found distracting. Viola Davis gives such a wonderfully nuanced performance as Nancy Birch, the mother of the other girl who went missing, and she had a very surprising reaction when she discovered Keller’s vigilante quest, which she played brilliantly. Terrence Howard is also quite good as the father of the other missing girl and Keller’s best friend, who is caught up in his quest. Melissa Leo gives a solid, understated performance as Holly Jones, the mother of Alex Jones. And Dano finds the right tone for Jones, a disturbed character you can never quite get a read on.
Part of what I really enjoyed about Villeneuve’s directing style is that he trusts the audience to understand what’s happening. Too often these days plots are spelled out to a mind numbingly simple level that often comes across as insulting. Villeneuve leaves out connecting scenes that other directors would include, trusting the audience to figure out how the characters got from point A to point B. And, in a move I very much enjoyed, he keeps the ending of the film intentionally vague, giving the audience all of the information they need to figure out what happens in the end without actually showing it. He has a refreshing approach to directing that I very much enjoyed after a summer of sitting through unsubtle, big budget blockbuster films.
There’s a lot to enjoy about Prisoners. It’s a well-paced, confident film that deals in shades of gray and leaves audiences wondering what will happen next. It also has a talented cast giving compelling performances. And, most importantly, it gives audiences a satisfying ending. If you are looking for a slightly complex and rewarding film, I recommend it.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.