Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis
As a film reviewer, not only is my job to inform the reader of what bullets to dodge when heading to multiplexes, but it’s also to entertain you as well. Every once in a while, a movie comes along and makes the entertaining side of writing extremely difficult. With a film like Prisoners, the only way to approach the themes and subject matter is to get a little more personal. This is not a film meant to entertain. Prisoners is violent, dark, gloomy, and takes you to that uncomfortable place we hate to visit. You know that place I’m talking about. What would you do if your child was kidnapped?
It’s amazing the lengths we will go just to save a child, especially our own. I’m willing to bet most people reading this right now are ready and willing to go to jail if someone hurt their own kid. We’re honest, obedient, and law-abiding citizens but if you touch our kid, get ready for anything. Prisoners is a character study of that line that most people are willing to cross for their children. The result is extremely gripping and unsettling all at the same time. Through the aggressive performance of a desperate father portrayed by Hugh Jackman, the film’s message of morality is taken to another level.
Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a religious family man who finds himself questioning his principals after his daughter as well as the neighbor’s (Terrence Howard) turn up missing. After the disappearance of the children, Keller seeks to find an answer to what exactly happened on the terrible night. The older kids mention that the two little girls were seen playing on a mysterious RV just before the incident. Soon, the police get involved and track down the same RV which is being driven by Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has the IQ of a 10 year old. Once they enter the RV, the children are nowhere to be found.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Loki, the lead detective who is placed in charge of finding Keller’s children. Gyllenhaal and Jackman share some of the best scenes of the entire film together. The tension between these two on-screen makes you wonder about the atmosphere on set. Keller from the start makes Detective Loki’s job a living nightmare. As most parents would if their child was missing. Jackman sells the intensity and passion of wanting his little girls to be safe by the sheer ferociousness of how he talks to Loki. I have to throw major points to Gyllenhaal as well, because this might be his best performance yet. There is several moments– this includes Jackman also– where nothing had to be said in order to understand what Loki was thinking. Both actors arguably delivered the best performances of their careers.
The script is masterfully crafted at every level. Aaron Guzikowski doesn’t treat the audience like idiots and smash exposition down your throat. In fact, there is several key plot points that are blatantly in front of you, but are not spelled out for your understanding. This is the kind of movie that will need at least two viewings to put the entire puzzle together. In a nutshell, that is exactly how the script is pieced together. Each detail is crafted like a “maze-like” puzzle leading to a dead-end but the entire path is important for the journey. It’s so refreshing to see writing that actually challenges the viewer instead of hitting you over the head with plot.
The direction is all around perfect. I can barely speak of a flaw Denis Villeneuve made in the creation of this movie. Between the writing and Villeneuve there is a consistent tone of uncertainty that keeps you on edge minute-by-minute. I would actually argue that the film is built around the audiences and the character’s fear of just not knowing the outcomes. Villeneuve also has tremendous awareness of how to use visual cues to engage the audience in the mystery. There was several moments in the theater where the audience would see something, and you would hear gasp or other noises. It’s a mark of a true storyteller when a director can achieve invoking the viewer in a subtle manner, and have them play along spotting clues without them being aware.
With this all this praising I just did, I bet you thought I had nothing to complain about. Well, guess what? You are wrong. The one glaring thing which brought the movie down a notch for me personally is the final reveal. I’m not going to ruin the surprise, because I care about not spoiling the film for you. However, I will say I’m not sure I bought into it entirely. It’s a surprising reveal and you will not see it coming at all, but the execution didn’t sell me the way I think it was meant to. That being said, it did not hurt the film as a whole and certainly didn’t make the experience any less compelling. This is a rich film with a ton of texture and intensity. One minor speed bump doesn’t erase all the greatness within the rest of the story.
Although, there are stronger films in the same category as Prisoners, it still holds as a high note for the genre. Most of you have probably heard comparisons to Se7en, and even though there is callbacks to that movie, I have to disagree that it’s exactly like that film. If anyone is familiar with obscure foreign titles, then you might find more similarities with a movie like I Saw the Devil, where the story is constantly asking the viewer to question how much violence is enough. Where monsters and psychopaths are able to turn innocent people into the sick people they are chasing.