Now THIS is what I call a movie. For the last two months or so the cineplexes have been crowded with mindless, forgettable crap-fests that took pleasure in both insulting it's audience's intelligence and stealing their money simultaneously. Usually the month of September is filled with movies that studios believe will either under-perform or just take the number one spot opening weekend and be forgotten about Monday morning.
Then, out of nowhere, comes Denis Villeneuve's masterpiece: Prisoners. I have to admit, when I saw the first trailer for the film several months back it looked good and certainly like a strong movie but I wasn't expecting the sledgehammer to the heart and soul that I got when I sat down two weeks ago to watch it.
The film stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a middle-aged father of two somewhere in the mid-west, Maria Bello as his loving wife Grace, Viola Davis and Terence Howard as Nancy and Franklin Birch respectively, family friends of the Dovers, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, among many other fantastic character actors.
The plot, on the surface, is relatively simple: Two young girls belonging to the Dovers and Birches disappear on Thanksgiving night without a trace. The police find a suspect in a young man barely capable of speaking(Paul Dano) but release him after they find no evidence that he ever touched the two missing girls. As expected Jackman's alpha male Dover is not pleased with this and takes matters in to his own hands and kidnaps Dano's character, Alex, and "goes to work" on him. You may be thinking, "Gee, thanks for spoiling the whole thing", but rest assured, I've barely scraped the surface of what this film is really about. It's as unpredictable and thrilling as anything Hitchcock made and just as shocking at all the right moments. Trust me, you have no idea what you're in for when you sit down to watch this angry beast of a film.
So what separates Prisoners from other thrillers that have come out in recent years? Well for one it actually thrills you and keeps the audience completely invested in the story being told, a simple requirement for all thrillers that's been completely lost in recent years. How does it keep the audience invested? With great acting, film-making and a perfectly balanced and paced plot.
Let's start with the acting.
Hugh Jackman, if there's any justice in the world, should receive his second Oscar Nomination when they are announced early next year. Nothing he has done in his career can prepare you for the unhinged and completely natural performance he gives here. Every single emotion he emits, whether it be sadness, confusion or, as is the case for most of the film, blind fury, comes off so natural and fluid that not once did I find myself thinking he was doing a great job "acting", I thought he just was Keller Dover. It's the kind of performance that can completely change how an actor is viewed both in Hollywood and in the movie-going public's eyes. He's incredible in the film.
Then there's Gyllenhaal's character, Detective Loki. Loki is a completely different creation in the sense that everything he does is carefully calculated and executed. He's the anti-Keller Dover: A man who can control his emotions and allow rationality to dictate his actions. Gyllenhaal does a great job as well in a less "showy" role but still manages to make Loki just as watchable and intense as Jackman's Dover, albeit in a completely different way. Loki is beyond determined to find the two missing girls and bring the kidnapper to justice, even if that means risking his own sanity in the process.
Terence Howard and Viola Davis are given substantially less to do with their grieving parents but still raise their performances above what the script calls for. Again, the grieving and pain never once feels forced or not genuine. Their loss is real, and it's all the more heart-breaking to watch.
Then there's Paul Dano and Melissa Leo's characters. To describe why their work in Prisoners is crucial to the film's emotional resonance is to give away too much. Once the film is seen it is very clear why these two actors make many of the twists and turns in Prisoners as shocking and stomach-churning as they are.
Many critics and movie-goers have compared Prisoners to David Fincher's early masterpiece, Se7en('95). The comparisons are certainly well-founded as both films are jet-black dark and relentlessly raw, shocking and unpredictable. That being said, Se7en feels very much like a movie that was written, acted, directed etc. where as Prisoners feels real. So real that it transcends being a movie. It feels as if you're watching something actually happening in real life before your very eyes. Unfortunately children going missing is a part of our every day lives and, more often than not, it never ends well.
Prisoners is a brutal film, make no mistake about it, but it deserves to be seen. It's almost flawless in every department. You may not walk out of the theater feeling the best you ever have, but you'll walk out with a new-found appreciation for those you hold dear and with a restored faith in the art of film-making.