Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s Prisoners is a puzzle of horrendous acts that as it’s assembled forms an incrementally uglier portrait of humanity. Spectacular performances and a palpable atmosphere that nearly bleeds out of the screen, Prisoners is the kind great crime drama that shows nauseating mental effects of innocence lost.
On Thanksgiving the Dover (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Dylan Minnette and Erin Gerasimovich) and Birch (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Zoe Borde and Kyla Drew Simmons) families are having a get together at the Birch’s place. The two young girls Anna (Gerasimovich) and Joy (Simmons) go back to the Dover’s to get one of Anna’s toys and they never return. A city wide investigation begins and the young Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) immerses himself the quagmire. When Loki brings in a suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano), Keller Dover (Jackman) is sure that he’s responsible.
The rain-soaked Pennsylvania landscape merely adds to the despair. Villeneuve creates a lightless void. Every area is halogen lit and feels like murky pools of light in a suffocating darkness. He crafts his players into increasingly complex characters and you’re pushed to appraise and re-appraise their every move or motivation. Each relationship, each strident connection is shaken to the core. Aaron Guzikowski’s script unfolds at a simmering pace. You’re given an insight into the characters before you watch them squeezed in a vice. Prisoners is as much about physical imprisonment (demonstrated in the extent of Keller’s vigilantism) as it is about the metaphysical shackles of belief, in all its pure and perverse forms. The characters beliefs in a perpetrator, a foregone conclusion, or a means for redemption result in a kind of bloodlust or hypnotic state. Although the scope is small, the players are few; this philosophical depth of this small town crime feels like an odyssey. Just as you think Detective Loki is honing in on the perpetrator there are numerous distractions that tangentially distract conquering this maze.
Gyllenhal constructs a beautifully nuanced modern detective; hipster in his choice of attire, punk by attitude and this old school Detective in his unyielding pursuit for what’s factual. Jackman is the physical embodiment of the id. He’s driven purely by instinct, paternal love and animalistic raw power infected with tracking the inherent wrong of Dano’s accused. Watching Jackman’s emotional trajectory through this taxing ordeal is all the more proof that he’s getting better with age. We’re with both characters in the struggle to protect innocents. The more distance from physical punishment the more perverse it all feels. The collection of supporting characters do an impeccable job at registering the impacts of the the crimes and the duelling forces of vigilantism and legitimate justice. Maria Bello shows the immediate fog of existence when a child is abducted. She becomes a wraith in her own life. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis’ dialogue sparring, particularly as they’re given opportunities to satisfy their impulses, devolves from love to rancour.
If there’s a flaw it’s in the inauthentic manifestation of small town bureaucracy in the midst of this high profile crime. Wayne Duvall’s Captain Richard O’Malley is under resourced in a key moment in the film that is exploited as a plot device and the momentum in Detective Loki’s case frustratingly stalls.
Prisoners is a devastating ordeal through the Villeneuve’s impressionistic prism. It’s a testament to all involved that you want to revisit the ugliness of the story for the artistry of its construction.
[rating=4] and a half
Blake Howard – follow Blake on Twitter here: @blakeisbatman and listen to legacy audio reviews on That Movie Show 2UE here or on top-rating film podcast Pod Save Our Screen, available now on iTunes.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano and Dylan Minnette