Director Denis Villeneuve, of critically-acclaimed “Incendies” and upcoming “Enemy,” starts out the surge of Oscar-bait season (when every Friday releases a new high-caliber film with award potential) with his much discussed “Prisoners.” A gritty film designed to linger with audiences long after the credits are over, “Prisoners” shakes the viewers’ feelings of safety with dramatic performances and often eerie camerawork.
During Thanksgiving festivities, two families of friendly neighbors spend the holiday together. The Dover family (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Dylan Minnette, and Erin Gerasimovich) and the Birch family (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Zoe Soul, and Kyla Drew Simmons) have members around the same age and are all clearly great friends. Their young daughters ask to leave the Birch home to find something at the Dover’s house but leave without supervision and do not return. Lonely Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) investigates the suspicious RV seen in the neighborhood before the girls’ disappearance and finds mentally-handicapped Alex (Paul Dano) inside. Loki is forced to release Alex to his mother (Melissa Leo) due to lack of any evidence and the impossibility of Alex being capable of the crime, but Keller Dover (Jackman) claims Alex’s involvement and takes a darkly hands-on direction to find the lost girls; Keller kidnaps and tortures Alex for information. While Keller desperately beats Alex over multiple days and eventually asks Franklin and Nancy (Howard and Davis) for help, his wife falls into a depression and denial while Loki investigates a suspicious individual (David Dastmalchian).
Taxing performances and a bleak tone to the imagery make “Prisoners” a tough watch, even without the vigilante torture. Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins makes even the trees appear sinister, which sets the mood and makes the comfortable neighborhood feel dangerous. Though the film is full of dedicated performances, Hugh Jackman’s fatherly desperation makes “Prisoners” worthy of a discussion rather than only frighteningly aggressive.
Yes, it will make you wonder about your own actions and yes, it has a quality team of filmmakers behind it, but “Prisoners” rubs the wrong way by its conclusion. The beginning is a tense, dramatic thriller, but it verges on tacky in the final scenes. During a few moments throughout, you start to expect a murderer sneaking with a knife as the audience hears floorboards creak, turning towards pitiful, horror antics rather than relying on a smartly driven outcome. One scene even tries to quickly wrap up the red herring but feels incomplete and too rushed based on the even pacing of the rest of the film.
“Prisoners” conflicts its pointed plot and capable filmmaking against its disappointing ending. Though, viewers will be divided by its purpose and not quality; it all depends on where your limits lie as a protective parent. Some will probably find the father’s devotion and drive inspiring; I found the desperate violence vulgar to the point of disgust and feel the film endorses torture while distributing God’s forgiveness for the demons within us. It will definitely separate audiences, but Villeneuve’s willingness to tackle an uncomfortable subject appears to be winning over many critics.
Rating for “Prisoners:” D+
For more information on this film or to view its trailer, click here.
“Prisoners” is playing at most theaters in Columbus, including Gateway and Starplex Westpointe. For showtimes, click here.