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Mitchell's Top 20 Films of 2013: #13 "Prisoners"

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13. “Prisoners” - In broad daylight on a gray Thanksgiving afternoon in a small Pennsylvania town, two little girls - without warning - go missing, and the remaining family members rightfully lose their minds over anxiety and desperate grief.

Thankfully, police do find an obvious suspect (Paul Dano), but within 48 hours of his arrest, officers let him go.

For Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) - a blue-collar, no-nonsense and religious father - he watches Alex Jones’s (Dano) sudden gift of freedom and turns his anxiety and desperate grief into something else: rage, revenge and madness.

Keller decides to take the law into his own hands in a most savage way.

In director Denis Villeneuve’s film, he weaves an intricate 2 hour 33 minute story down bleak and sobering paths and left this critic mesmerized to his despairing human car wreck which leaves no on-screen character unscathed.

This is frightening material for any parent, but the subsequent failed morality - by Keller and others - offers excessive fodder to feed my nightmares for years.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) lost their daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), too and face a moral dilemma of either accepting or rejecting Keller’s decisions.

Meanwhile, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) - a workaholic with no time for personal relationships or family - tries to find enough evidence to put Alex away, but also discovers a mysterious new suspect which increases the complexity of the shady puzzle.

Villeneuve - not shy of dark material (“Incendies” (2010), “Polytechnique” (2009)) - also keeps us guessing by intertwining a baffling crime drama into the mix, and he moves the resonant characters along a chess board known as the fictional town of Conyers, PA.

Conyers acts as another character in the film by bringing a sense of dread with its charcoal skies, surrounding miles of leafless deciduous trees and brown lawns on winding neighborhoods, and this town did not escape the clutches of recession either.

For example, Keller mentions - in passing - available carpentry work is running thin, and Villeneuve offers bleak shots of a depressing “Value Mart”, a cheap liquor store and a dilapidated apartment building to help reinforce the message: present day life in 2013 rural America is not easy.

For the Dover and Birch families, any glimpse of happiness - right now - is utterly unachievable.

The film itself, however, does achieve effective uses of symbolism and is especially good at presenting the irony of a religious family crossing boundaries of human decency.

I do not know if Villeneuve or writer Aaron Guzikowski had President Obama’s famous (or infamous) comment about small town Americans clinging to their guns and religion in mind when shaping Jackman’s character, but these references thickly run with Keller.

This makes his ethical choices all the more fascinating, because in this horrific case, we learn what a human being is capable of during periods of the aforementioned anxiety and desperate grief.

Follow me on Twitter: @MitchFilmCritic

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