Salty Kernel, Andrew Brusentsev, takes no prisoners in his review of PRISONERS, while I simultaneously release the worst introduction to an article the site has had 🙂 Enjoy Andrew’s review below – PRISONERS released today in Australia, is rated MA15+ and runs for a whopping 153mins.
PRISONERS is Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first English language movie with a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski. Villeneuve is quite rightly famous for his 2010 “Incendies”. “Incendies” was a great mysterious tale about memory and the way it shifts over time and impacts on our sense of self and identity. It had a great message regarding violence and how it gestates and creates a traumatised future for those that are affected by it. Prisoners riffs on many of the same themes but then makes a drastic turn to the brutal and macabre. Prisoners is in many places a gripping drama focused quite closely on the lives and emotions of the protagonists, in other areas preposterous and drawn out.
Hugh Jackman is the top billed star of these proceedings; he plays a strong driven man whose little daughter has been kidnapped. Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (the real standout of this movie) plays the detective obsessed to solve the case. Paul Dano as Alex Jones, in a great bit role as the disturbed individual whose silence either acknowledges his guilt or who at the very least holds the key to the disappearances.
Jackman and Terrence Howard are two best friends, Keller Dover and Franklin Birch. They are middle-aged friends whose family’s lives are intertwined. Their wives Grace (Maria Bello) and Nancy (Viola Davis) are forever organising family get-togethers. Keller and Grace have a teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). Franklin and Nancy have two girls Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) the same ages apart as the children of former. Life seems to be as normal as you can get in this small religious middle American community.
We meet the family at one their Thanksgiving lunches, the grownups sit upstairs talking and having a good time, as friends do. The teenagers are watching TV, as teens do. Unbeknownst to them their two little girls play out on the street; close to where a creepy campervan is parked (this van was noticed by childrenon a walk). Late in the afternoon a realisation hits the adults. The two younger girls are missing, where could they be? The odd vehicle is also missing.
This is where we are introduced to Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). He is a man who is haunted by his past, his past cases and the effects they have had on him. He carries these demons with him, he takes them all personally, very personally. Due to Loki’s efforts the van is eventually found. Upon arresting the driver we learn that he is an intellectually disabled young man – Alex Jones (Dano). Loki interrogates nonetheless but Jones appears entirely unresponsive to ferocious questioning. With evidence and therefore no charges to be pressed Loki realises that he has to let the man go. He is released to a media circus outside, and also a waiting Keller, who in his fury with the police’s decision confronts Jones and physically assaults him. During the assault Jones says something to Keller; it is a mumbled partial whisper. Could it be that he really does know something? Keller is convinced that is the truth.
This build up is executed perfectly by all departments. Villeneuve is excellent at showing us the painstaking work done by police, forensics and search teams. We begin to witness the mounting horror of what is transpiring with the family and those around them. Some members break, others throw themselves into the search, some clutch at straws any straws. Gyllenhaal in these scenes anchors the performance. Taking the blame of the release of Jones on himself he is hounded, driven to question anybody with even a sliver of connection to the case. He is fanatical and determined to find the truth. In one scene he discovers a moldering corpse in an ex-paedophile priest’s basement bringing revulsion and anger from the detective. In another scene there is genuine torment when questioning a woman whose little boy vanished without trace 20 years ago. She is a ghost resigned to the tragedy. “No one took them; nothing happened; they’re just gone.” she says.
Villeneuve is almost nihilist in his regard to the situation. There is no blame ascribed but this nihilism lurches in a new direction at about the hour mark. The tone changes to something else that of self-righteous, perhaps even deluded, rage. Keller is convinced that Jones is the actual kidnapper and that the police are powerless to help his family. This realisation born of desperation resolves itself into kidnapping, torture and violence. This will be very confronting by some viewers. Jones is kidnapped and is systematically tortured by Keller with complicity of Franklin and Franklin’s wife. The results are shocking and as for how it ends I will not spoil it for the reader.
The question I had ¾ of the way through was: What is this movie actually about? What is its message? Is it telling us that torture never leads to any tangible results and actually stains the perpetrator more than the victim? It is ambiguous, perhaps that was the intent, I am not sure. To me though after Jones is kidnapped the plot becomes increasingly clichéd. Jackman turns into a one dimensional caricature of violence, a one line rage monster, there is no dynamics to his performance. He is capable of better, he is more nuanced than this. Dano is relegated to a bit screamer and Gyllenhaal is relied on to tie it all together. The screenplay has to run at light speed to tie up all the strands and loose ends which has the audience reconciling some serious logic flaws. Towards the end the film began to try my patience with the way the whole thing was wrapped up. I believe I audibly groaned.
Such promise from the first and partial second acts leads to a somewhat shambolic ending. See it for Jake G; I am loving what he is doing. Very disappointed in Jackman as I believe he is capable of so much more. Look out for Paul Dano he is going to be a big star.