Sunday, September 29, 2013

Prisoners (2013)

***WARNING: This review contains mild spoilers for the film.***

It begins in a quiet suburban neighborhood that could be anywhere in America. The Dovers - Keller (Hugh Jackman), Grace (Maria Bello), older son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) - spend Thanksgiving down the street at the home of the Birches - Franklin (Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis), eldest daughter Eliza (Zoe Soul), and younger daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). They enjoy a delicious dinner, listen as Franklin drunkenly tries to play the trumpet, laugh. Anna and Joy want to go back to the Dover house. "Wear a hat," Grace intones. Nancy tells Joy to do the same.

Neither know about the RV that is parked down the street, gospel music drifting out the windows. Ralph and Eliza, who had seen it earlier, think nothing of it.

Until Anna and Joy don't come back.

Prisoners starts with this unnerving hook, every parent's worse nightmare. But the film, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's English-language debut, is a delectable puzzle waiting to be solved. It's the kind of adult, serious-minded film that major studios - in this case, Warner Brothers - just don't seem to be interested in making anymore. The film quietly takes its time to unveil the evil that's lurking in this small Pennsylvania town, as well as the moral corruption that good men can unleash when pushed to the limit.

The film's script, by Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband), is a fine example of how to build a terrific labyrinthine thriller without sacrificing character or making it completely obvious where this is all going (though some viewers may be able to figure it out after the first hour). Thankfully, it sticks to a linear narrative, without the trendy flashbacks/flashforwards that have become the norm in our post-Memento world. Villeneuve - who's perhaps best known for Incendies, Canada's Foreign Language Film Oscar nominee in 2011 - miraculously keeps a contemplative pace that only rarely lags, and builds the tension until it becomes almost unbearable. Working with longtime Coen Brothers cinematographer/living legend Roger Deakins, he crafts a visually striking film that nonetheless feels completely real and lived-in. Everyone probably recognizes something about the Keller and Birch homes - they feel like your neighbors' living rooms and backyards.

Of course, the film's greatest asset is it's remarkable cast. Jackman, in particular, is a force to be reckoned with: his Keller is a man who's always believed himself to be his family's protecter, and is willing to go to extreme lengths - of legality and morality - to find his daughter, and Jackman nails that desperate intensity and foggy logic. Jake Gyllenhaal, as the investigating Detective Loki, delivers a finely subtle performance; he's truly one of the most gifted actors working in Hollywood today, but only occasionally seems to get the opportunity to showcase his talent anymore. It's also great to see Howard finally get another role he can sink his teeth into, bringing great nuance to the conflicted Franklin, and Davis is reliably terrific in her handful of scenes. Paul Dano and a nearly-unrecognizable Melissa Leo appear as the RV's driver, mentally-underdeveloped Alex Jones, and his aunt, respectively. But it's David Dastmalchian - most memorably seen as a cop on the receiving end of Harvey Dent's wrath in The Dark Knight - who nearly steals the film as an incredibly creepy person-of-interest who's ties to the case are deeper than they appear.

The most interesting aspect of Prisoners, though, is how the film sneaks in an allegory for our post-9/11 world. Well, there's actually two allegories: the aforementioned one, and one about religious meaning in understanding the events that happen to us. The latter proves to be more surface than anything, as many of the film's religious imagery disappears without a trace after the first half. But the former it sticks to: Keller is absolutely convinced that Alex is responsible for the abductions, and in turn keeps Alex prisoner in an abandoned apartment building, torturing him for information that, it turns out, he doesn't possess the capabilities to express. As Keller becomes more and more sadistic in his methods, Franklin is complicit but conflicted (which Howard magnificently conveys just through his facial expressions), as is Nancy. The film asks: what happens to us when we look for boogeymen in the wrong place, as actual threats continue to exist?

For a film that could have been just a decent potboiler, Prisoners has higher-minded aspirations. As a result, it's one of the finest mysteries in years, and a welcome break from the nonstop barrage of franchises and fanboy-pleasers from the summer. It's a film that deserves to be seen. A


Dan O. said...

The cast was great, but the story also made it even better to watch since it could have literally gone anywhere, at any given time. Nice review Jason.

Jason H. said...

Thank you Dan O.!

Kaitlin Pendley said...

I agree with Dan, the plot could have gone anywhere, could have had an twist or turn, and was as beautiful and tragic as it was satisfying. Also, thank you for including my reference to that actor from TDK- I love being able to place actors from other films!