It is not the sinking feeling that is ingrained into our minds when a child's well-being is put into question that makes "Prisoners" (2013) as intense as it is. It is the masterful interweaving of different perspectives from a group of people that merges into a brilliant emotional roller coaster. It is the ever-growing tension that builds from start to finish. But, above all, it is the knowledge that some unrevealed element present in most thrillers is liable to rear its ugly head at any moment.
The film begins on Thanksgiving Day. Keller (Academy Award nominee Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello) Dover walk a few blocks to Franklin (Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Academy Award nominee Viola Davis) Birch's house to share the holiday with each other. Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette) and Eliza Birch (Zoe Borde) run downstairs after dinner to watch television. Little Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) decide to run back to Anna's house to find a small toy whistle while their parents are carrying on with festivities in the living room.
Soon after, the Dovers and Birches look for the girls. They're nowhere to be found. The only clue is a small RV that the children were playing on earlier in the day. When the RV has disappeared, the police are called and the search begins. Heading up the case is Detective Loki (Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal). What follows is a raw and gritty glimpse into the lives of two families in the days following the kidnappings, a young detective's attempts to save them, and a father who will stop at nothing to recover his child.
Though the ensemble packs a punch as a whole, it is Jackman and Gyllenhaal that carry the show. Jackman, as a father who will stop at nothing to rescue his child, delivers a tense and emotionally draining performance. We follow his character down a dark, unstable path as his mental stability dwindles away with every scene he is in. Even in few scenes he is absent from, his ominous presence and current situation is palpable. If you look at Gyllenhaal's character on paper, you see a detective who apparently has never failed at solving a case. The only other real information we have is that he grew up in a boy's home, but that information is so fleeting that you'll miss it if you clear your throat. That being said, somehow, he manages to deliver depth to his character in such a way that you really don't care that you know nothing about him.
The supporting cast is nothing to balk at. Davis and Bello are the two mothers. No, we don't see them on screen very often, but you feel every ounce of pain that they're feeling. They say there's nothing like a mother's love and these two women utilized their limited time on screen in order to drive that point home. Howard, as Keller's best friend and Joy's father, serves as an unsteady voice of reason to Keller, but is definitely overshadowed by his friend.
Director Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies") brings the writer's words to life in a beautiful way. He peppered this Crime Thriller with well-placed dramatic elements. It was a good call to darken the typical "whodunit" with a deep look into character psyches. Loki's hunt for the children and their kidnapper(s) was placed on even keel with the effects of the situation on Keller, his family, and their friends.
"Prisoners" is not a film for everyone. However, it is the best film I've seen in 2013. Though lengthy (a little over 2 1/2 hours), there was not a moment where I was tempted to close my eyes and zone out for a second. It keeps you at the edge of your seats and then slaps you in the face repeatedly. It is gripping, raw, compelling, deep, complicated, and brilliantly done. I wouldn't be surprised if good old Oscar decided to nod his head at this one. Show times can be found here.
Little Rock Movie Examiner's rating: 5 out of 5 stars
MPAA rating: R
Minimum Age Group: 17+
Language: Very strong language
Violence: Disturbing violence, including torture
Drugs/Alcohol: Alcohol use, drug use
Themes/Issues: Religion, kidnapping