by Daniel Rester
Prisoners will definitely not be in the running for “Feel-good Movie of 2013,” as it focuses on the search for two kidnapped girls. It’s a nerve-racking drama, one that grips during viewing and then haunts afterward. Director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski certainly aren’t the first filmmakers to tackle the subject of child abduction on film, but they do aim to leave their mark on the sub-genre – and do so successfully for the most part.
Villeneuve’s film opens around Thanksgiving in a dreary suburb, with two families coming together for festivities. Soon after, a little girl from each family winds up missing. One of the fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman), tries to take matters into his own hands after he suspects a creepy man named Alex (Paul Dano) of the crime; the other father (Terrence Howard) is more reluctant to do such things. Joining in the search of the girls is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has never left a case unsolved.
The setup of the mystery in the plot is fairly simple, yet Prisoners runs 153 minutes. While it’s safe to say that the film could have used some trimming, Villeneuve and Guzikowski fill the story with enough powerful moments and twists to make it worthy of the running time. A few underdeveloped characters, unexplained moments, and one massive plot hole do keep the movie from reaching its full potential, but the filmmakers have still made a child abduction film to be remembered.
Guzikowski’s writing here is strong, delivering some Biblical overtones (lots of symbolism is seen and prayers are heard) and Hitchcockian twists that elevate the simple material; the layers of personality and emotionality for the characters are also very effective. Villeneuve handles everything with exceptional skill as well, keeping the film tonally dark and balancing the mystery and character study aspects expertly. In his handling of the story, environments, and actors, Villeneuve’s work here can be somewhat compared to David Fincher’s style – which is a compliment.
Helping to build the atmosphere the film has to offer are the cinematography, music score, and editing, all of which are commendable. The great Roger Deakin’s camerawork here is perhaps the best thing about the film. The cinematographer makes every frame count, as usual, capturing the mise en scenes in ways that make for plenty of memorable images; the smooth movements through the dismal environments, the use of low lighting, etc. are just immaculate. Johaan Johannsson’s original score adds to the chilliness of the film, while Joel Cox and Gary Roach’s editing is spot-on as far as timing and mixes of angles goes.
Some of Prisoners’ highest praise has been going towards its cast. The film is full of heavyweight actors, including the before-mentioned people, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo. Jackman has many intense moments in the lead, allowing his character’s reactions as a parent to be alternately relatable and questionable. The performance is overwrought at times, but it is mostly amazing — with one scene involving Jackman and a sink that is unforgettable. Gyllenhaal, as the mysterious and seemingly lonely Loki, is even more impressive in my book; the actor does a terrific job at handling the nuances of the character while also adding a lot of necessary fire in certain scenes.
Jackman and Gyllenhaal are the main players here, but everyone else does well too. Dano and Howard both add various hints of fear and subtlety to their characters, while Davis (as Howard’s character’s wife) and Leo (as Alex’s aunt) add a lot of presence in their small amounts of screen time. Only Bello comes up slightly weak. The actress gives a good performance for the most part, but she has quite a few crying scenes that never feel authentic enough.
Prisoners is a taut and disturbing drama that features excellent acting and smart writing and direction. The film is overlong and features its share of minor flaws, but it’s still one of the better adult dramas to come out recently. Villeneuve’s film is not the masterpiece that some people are making it out to be, but it is a film that handles the subject of child abduction in a serious and memorable way.
Rating: 3 ½ out of 4 stars (Grade Equivalent for Me: A-)