'Prisoners' Holds Audience Captive With Tense Thrills
Published: Sunday, September 22, 2013
Updated: Sunday, September 22, 2013 21:09
Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve’s follow up to his Oscar-nominated Incendies, is an American drama for our times. Although a crime thriller, this film has emotion at its core, questioning the limits of human morality.
Four parents face trauma when their daughters go missing on Thanksgiving and the rough-around-the-edges Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has never left one of his crimes unsolved, is assigned to the case. When the missing girls’ siblings reveal that a mysterious RV was parked near where the girls must have been taken, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) provides the perfect perpetrator. Jones has lank hair, ill-fitting glasses and clothes, is shy, uncooperative, and has “the IQ of a 10 year old”—fitting the audience’s stereotype of what a pedophile must look and act like. Despite this, Loki is convinced that he is not to blame, and so begins a conflict between one of the fathers—Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman)—and Gyllenhaal’s seemingly detached detective.
By painting Jones as a caricature, Dano, Villeneuve, and the writer Aaron Guzikowski make the audience question everything they see. In a truly well-crafted moment, Dover attacks Jones and only the audience and Dover hear the young man say “they didn’t cry until I left them.” Attempting to play the scene back in one’s mind, it is impossible to remember if we saw the words come out of Jones’ mouth. Are we so sympathetic toward Dover that we can’t help but believe in his conviction? Or is there something more? Dover certainly believes so and takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping Jones—leading to grueling scenes of punishment and proving the lengths that a father will go to find his daughter, however dubious his methods.
Having four parents affected by this tragedy nicely posits four characters against each other in their methods of coping, especially with the parents of Joy (the beautifully understated Terence Howard and Viola Davis) aware of Dover’s imprisonment of Jones while Dover’s wife is kept in the dark and dosed up on sleeping pills.
The sense of things being hidden from the audience, and certain characters in the story, is deepened by Johann Johannsson’s foreboding score. Just as the music suggests it will go in one direction but then halts, the plot turns and challenges us morally and cerebrally. Although some of the red herrings are a bit too obvious, and certain scenes frustrate, it feels as if this film isn’t trying to be a perplexing mystery thriller. Critic Dan Jolin has suggested that the film has strong political undercurrents: “Dover is the America that invaded Iraq, believing his grief-fuelled quest for justice places him beyond morality and the law,” but it feels like this too is complicated. Sensation and numbness are at the heart of this story. Gyllenhaal’s character proves his strong emotional core while keeping hidden intriguing aspects of his persona: audiences could not fail to wonder why Guzikowski has settled on the name “Loki”—the trickster—for him, or about his numerous tattoos. In this way Gyllanhaal reminds us of his portrayal of Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. He has certainly matured as an actor since then—it would not be a stretch to say that his nuanced, very human portrayal of a tested police detective could inspire Oscar voters, perhaps over preference of Jackman.
An unsurprisingly striking aspect of the film is Roger Deakins’ cinematography. His prolific body of work never disappoints, particularly when working with a frosty atmosphere—psychologically and physically—so here he excels, looking through swirling snow that reflects our protagonists’ bewilderment.
If there is one sticking point of this film, it is its hackneyed portrayal of Christian extremism—not much more can be said without giving away too much. Still, this is somewhat reconciled by the end and the perfect cohesion of every aspect of the film—the acting, writing, cinematography, score, and editing (the list is endless) works to leave you with a busy mind. Walking out of the cinema, a fellow audience-member told every person he passed to go and see Prisoners and on the T he was still discussing aspects of the plot with his friends. This is the reaction that a truly emotionally challenging film can provoke and when this happens it is something to be celebrated amid stunt-filled blockbusters and gross-out comedies.