Release date: 9/20/2013
Directed by: Denis Villenueve
The Plot: When their children vanish during an afternoon gathering two sets of parents (Hugh Jackman/Maria Bello, Terrence Howard/ Viola Davis) desperately search their neighborhood trying to find the lost girls. When their other children tell them about a spooky, beat-up RV that the girls were playing around, the distraught families call the police. When the suspect (Paul Dano) is finally apprehended not only does he not have the girls - there's no evidence they were even in his company. The search continues, though one father has different designs for finding his abducted daughter.
The Film: There's a scene in Denis Villeneuve's first feature film Prisoners where Hugh Jackman's Keller Dover is staking out the house of the guy he believes is responsible for the abduction of his young daughter. Alex - the alleged kidnapper - is walking his aunt's dog down the street at night. He's a strange guy Alex. If he talks at all it's with the voice of a nine year old boy. See, Alex has the mental acuity of a child, and since there's no physical evidence linking him to the appropriation of the two girls, the police don't believe he could have committed the crime. While he's walking the dog Alex suddenly stops, and then slowly pulls the the small canine up off the sidewalk by it's leash. The dog squeals and flops in the air like a fish suspended on fishing line. Alex watches indifferently as the animal struggles, whimpers, and slowly chokes to death hanging from his collar.
Keller watches too.
This is the moment in the movie where we understand that Keller is certain this has to be the guy who took his little girl. We might even be sure of it ourselves, because Jackman's character is basically the audience's surrogate in the film. But Prisoners is a movie that will test the conviction of everyone involved - the players and the patrons. Keller Dover is a man of war. He's hard-headed and direct. If we secretly wish some pain on Alex Jones for stealing kids, or for torturing his dog, or for never speaking up and saying that he did or didn't snatch two little girls in the middle of what should have been a normal afternoon, Keller's going to be the pistons and gears driving that pain home.
If you've seen the trailer for the film then you know that Keller Dover abducts Alex and chains him to a radiator and conducts his own interrogation where there won't be any interruptions or pesky codes of conduct. The Geneva Convention happened in another dimension than the one in Prisoners. This isn't enhanced interrogation techniques used for gathering information to halt impending terrorist attacks or to find the location of chemical weapon stockpiles or Osama bin Laden - this is where is my child? Is she alive? Did you hurt her? Did you kill her? This is personal. This is unimpeded rage. Surprisingly enough... this is also only the first act of Prisoners. So if you believed, as I did, that the trailer for this film spoiled everything just know that it doesn't.
There's plenty more movie left.
Villeneuve's film wants to dine at two tables. The table of the Lord - a contemplative character drama. An intimate study of action, non-action, and interaction between people going through the worst week of their lives. And the table of the Devil - an old fashioned Hollywood potboiler. In his attempt at serving two different masters Denis has spread out quite the banquet for his inaugural feature. Though I may feel that there are far too many servings of red herring over at one side if the dining room, it's nice to know that he didn't skimp on the cuts of thick, juicy, dramatic tension on the other side.
What would you do if this was your child? How far would you go to find out what happened to her? Just how positive are you that you've nabbed the guy who did it? Can you afford to be wrong?
Don't be surprised if you find yourself discussing the events and motivations of the film. The ending practically panhandles both personal, and more importantly, impersonal analysis. Though how you walk away from the final act of Prisoners will be determined by which table you enjoyed eating at during the proceeding events - the devastating character drama or the hustle of the whodunit - it won't take anything away from the fascinating journey getting there. In that respect Prisoners does a fine job telling its story and keeping an audience bolted to the plot. Unfortunately there is a side effect to all the misdirection and narrative larceny.
This is a film with gaps in its teeth. Noticeable holes to put it mildly.
These two families obviously live in the strangest neighborhood in North America, a serpents nest (literally) of creeps, corpses, and perverts. And when the terrible situation finally finds a resolution there will be more questions than the salient one the film does indeed answer. By closing credits we know what happened to the two missing girls - but we may never know just what the hell was happening behind the scenes of these frozen, dank streets of New England. And we will never, ever know why Jake Gyllenhaal's cop, Detective Loki, wears his dress shirts buttoned to the throat and then chooses not to wear a tie.
There are things in Prisoners that will forever haunt us. Unanimously fastened formal wear included.
The Verdict: For folks that enjoyed suffering through George Sluizer's The Vanishing, (the 1988 vintage) or more recently, Eastwood's Mystic River, Prisoners is going to feel like coming home. This is a movie that tests the range of all its players, so kudos to the cast for being up to the challenge - especially Jackman and Dano. Though I may have issues about where we landed by the end of Prisoners it doesn't change how enthralling the journey was getting there.
See this one.