How far would you go to protect your family? Keller Dover is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki arrests its driver, Alex Jones, but a lack of evidence forces his release. As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family? (Imdb)
The Guardian, Thursday 26 September 2013
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve is known and admired for his 2010 movie Incendies, a mysterious and involved tale that I thought worked as a kind of prose-poem about memory and identity, and about how violence and bloodshed are the creator/parents of a traumatised future – but I wondered about its straightforward believability as drama. Now Villeneuve has made his first English-language film, Prisoners, a long, brutal and occasionally gripping forensic crime drama. Hugh Jackmanstars as a man whose little daughter has been kidnapped; Jake Gyllenhaal is the cop assigned to the case, and Paul Dano is the disturbed individual who holds the key to the whole thing. This movie keeps plenty of suspects in play, along with multiple plotlines running and plates spinning. It all finally ties up – sort of. Prisoners is as involved and twisty as any airport bestseller: not an adaptation, though, but an original screenplay by the TV writer-producer Aaron Guzikowski.
It obviously aspires to something more than pulp, with the pluralities of meaning in the title. There are flashes of the macabre, which put me very briefly in mind of Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs (1991) or George Sluizer’s The Vanishing (1993). The film gestures at agonised questions of guilt, crime and punishment: on the poster, the haggard and bearded Jackman has a Dostoevskian look that oddly does not come across in the movie itself. Perhaps most interestingly, Villeneuve and Guzikowski appear to be contriving some metaphors for the “war on terror”; some anxieties buried in the American psyche about just what is involved when interrogation is enhanced.
Jackman and Terrence Howard are Keller and Franklin, two middle-aged guys, who with their wives Grace (Maria Bello) and Nancy (Viola Davis), are forever having family get-togethers. After one boozy Thanksgiving lunch, the grownups let their two little girls play out on the street, close to where a creepy campervan is parked. When the two girls vanish, along with the sinister vehicle, a massive police hunt is directed by Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), who is haunted by the case and perhaps, in the time-honoured manner, by his own personal demons. But on arresting the van’s driver, the learning-impaired Alex Jones (Dano), there is still no sign of the girls and the man appears entirely unresponsive to ferocious questioning. With no legal grounds to hold him, and to general community outrage, Loki has to let the man go. In the brawl outside the station, Jones murmurs something to Keller. Could it be that he does know something – taunting the parents with riddles and clues?
Villeneuve is good at showing the nauseating excavation and archaeology involved here: vast areas are searched and sifted through. And when the investigation is as widespread and concerted as this, other horrors, long hidden, can be dredged up too. Loki has to contact and question all the known sex offenders in the locality, and his fanatical persistence seems to bring new atrocities to light. The discovery of a mouldering corpse, which may or may not have anything to do with the missing girls, appears to cause only an infinite weariness and distaste in Loki. He speaks to one woman whose little boy vanished without trace 20 years ago, and she seems almost resigned to tragedies like hers never getting solved: “No one took them; nothing happened; they’re just gone.”
Set against this nihilist despair is something else: rage. For the families, the girls’ kidnapping appears to be an act of terrorism and something must be done. The idea that Jones actually does know something, and that pussyfooting law-enforcement officials are failing to get at the truth, is intolerable. The result is violence, and some horrible images that are closer to European hardcore than mainstream Hollywood.
But what exactly is the movie saying about all this? It could be that tortureis always morally culpable, that it never elicits anything of value – or it could be that it is dirty work that gets results. Rather as in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), there is a kind of ambiguity about righteous violence in Prisoners and how exactly we are supposed to feel about it. The film finally effects an evasive blend of condemnation and sentimental exoneration. Perhaps more disconcerting is the way Guzikowski’s screenplay has to strain and squirm to tie up all its loose ends, and the film will try your patience with some of the later throwaway revelations. A certain dour realist vigour keeps the nightmare alive.
Kidnapping thrillers often lull us into a sense of safety in the opening sequences, showing the normal rhythms of life that will soon be shattered. Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” does not go that route. It opens with a shot of a snowy forest, where a deer quietly noses around for food. Into the frame comes the barrel of a shotgun. We hear a prayer being intoned. Boom, the deer goes down. The camera pulls back to show a father (Hugh Jackman) and teenage son (Dylan Minnette), in day-glo hunting gear staring at their kill through the ranks of bare trees. On the drive home, the father, who seems humorless, intense, and a bit of a bore, lectures the son on how to always be prepared for the worst in life.
This opening is so heavy-handed that it’s amazing that the film doesn’t instantly collapse under its symbolic weight. Shot by the great Roger Deakins, regular cinematographer for the Coen brothers, the movie is drenched in rain and drained of color. Aspects of “Prisoners” are effective, but for the most part it’s rather ridiculous (despite the fact that it clearly wants to be taken super-seriously), and there’s an overwrought quality to much of the acting.
Keller Dover (Jackman) is an independent contractor who lives with his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and two kids in a suburban neighborhood. He loves Bruce Springsteen, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” hunting, and hoarding canned goods, gas masks, and survivalist gadgets in his basement. On Thanksgiving, the Dovers go to dinner with a neighboring family, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who have two kids the same age. While the parents drink wine and talk in the living room, the two little girls ask if they can take a walk. It is a walk from which they do not return. Panic ensues, especially when it becomes clear that a creepy RV, which had been seen parked in the neighborhood earlier, has vanished. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case.
The RV’s owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is dragged in for questioning. Forensics say the RV is clean of physical evidence, but Alex is strange. he speaks in a whispery high voice that makes him sound like a pre-teen. It is not inconceivable to think that he may be hiding something. This is clearly Dover’s take, and he and Loki immediately start to butt heads about the course of the investigation. When Jones is released due to lack of evidence (into the custody of his aunt, played by Melissa Leo), Dover takes matters into his own hands, kidnapping Jones, and holding him hostage in an abandoned dilapidated building. Dover loops in Franklin Birch on his plan to beat the truth out of Jones. Birch is horrified at the sight of Jones tied to a sink, but he ignores his own moral compass in the face of Dover’s furious certainty. This is one of the subtler points of the script: how certainty can override doubt with sheer force, and how doubt is often essential to maintaining our humanity.
Hugh Jackman huffs and puffs and screams and roars throughout the film, and it becomes monotonous, but what all that behavior tells us is that this is a weak man who needs to feel powerful. In one telling moment, while murmuring the “Our Father,” he is unable to say “as we forgive those who trespass against us.” He has a veritable arsenal in his basement, his family could withstand a mustard gas attack as well as the Zombie Apocalypse, but he couldn’t protect his daughter on a simple walk through a safe neighborhood. And he’s so convinced that Alex Jones is the guy that he is blind to other possibilities. Meanwhile, his wife lies in bed, tranquilizing herself into a stupor.
Gyllenhaal is great here in a role that must have looked rather uninteresting on the page. Aaron Guzikowski’s script, so packed with religious symbols that verges on a sermon, is excellent in its spare and compelling portrait of Loki. The only image of the character outside the context of his job is his introductory scene, eating Thanksgiving dinner in an empty, fluorescent-lit Chinese restaurant as the rain batters down outside. The only thing we learn about his past is that he was in a boys’ home and was raised in foster care. His knuckles and neck are sprinkled with tattoos, including a cross on one thumb. He’s got a facial tic. We meet a lot of creeps in “Prisoners”, and you get the sense that Detective Loki could have been one of them if he hadn’t become a cop. It’s a nice performance from Gyllenhaal, and its subtlety is welcome considering all the teeth gnashing going on in other performances.
Director Villeneuve gives us a couple of truly suspenseful scenes. One is a chase through the nighttime back yards of the neighborhood after a candlelight vigil for the two girls. The interiors of the houses seem gloomy and cramped, with walls cutting into the frame and characters coming in and out of sight: a visual correlative for the idea of people cut off from one another. But as the plot goes into high gear and we get other suspects, basement lairs and a glimpse of vast conspiracies, “Prisoners” wears out its welcome.
Your child has been kidnapped and a suspect has been brought in for questioning. His battered RV was parked in your neighborhood around the same time your 6-year-old daughter went missing. After a couple of days, several rounds of questioning and a lie detector test it’s determined he wasn’t involved and is released. No other suspects exist, your girl is still missing and your spouse is a blubbering mess. What do you do?
Prepare for dark territory with Denis Villeneuve‘s Prisoners, a film where one father offers his response to the question above as an increasingly mysterious case surrounding his daughter’s disappearance unfolds. In terms of tone,Prisoners is operating on the same dark level asDavid Fincher‘s Zodiac and Roger Deakinsdelivers some of the best cinematography of his career, turning something as trivial as a car coming to a curbside stop into a foreboding dolly shot. Eventree bark offers up riddles of its own.
Set during the grey and gloomy months of a Pennsylvanian November, we’re introduced to Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman andMaria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their respective families. It’s Thanksgiving and as the day wears the two soon-to-be victims ask if they can briefly run back to the Dovers’. Permission is granted, but not without their big brother and sister. The exception is noted, but not obeyed. They head back alone. They don’t come back.
After an exhaustive search, the only suspect is the curious driver of the aforementioned RV, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Greasy and soft-spoken, Alex has the IQ of a ten-year-old and claims to have no knowledge of the children’s whereabouts and is eventually allowed to go home with his adoptive mother (Melissa Leo). As you may guess, this doesn’t go over too well with the little girls’ parents, Keller in particular.
Jackman is rage personified. Any one of his incarnations as the comic book antihero Wolverine would run from Keller Dover. He’s a father that will stop at nothing to get his little girl back and God be with anyone that gets in his way.
On the other side of the story is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man whose personal life is a bit more grey. Initially seen alone in a diner on Thanksgiving night, he gets the call to investigate Alex’s RV parked near a wooded area. His methods seem sound and he’s determined to get the two missing girls back, but there’s nothing he can say or do that will convince Keller absolutely everything is being done.
For those that have seen the trailer and believe the film has been spoiled, it hasn’t. The latter half offers a lot more to chew on including turns in the narrative and questions of morality that are both answered and left open to interpretation. To top it off, the performances across the board are stellar with Jackman and Gyllenhaal offering some of the best work I’ve seen from either of them, both worthy of Oscar attention. Jackman especially deserving of consideration along with a sneaky little gem of a performance from Melissa Leo.
Along with the cinematography from Deakins, which is sure to earn him his 11th Oscar nomination, the score from little known Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, contributing for the first time to a major motion picture, brings a heightened level of menace to Deakins’ cool greys and rain soaked pavement.
There is something, however, about Prisoners that keeps me from really falling for it and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it has to do with the overall efficiency of Villeneuve’s direction, opposite a few coincidences that come up over the course of the nearly 150-minute running time that contradict how effective the rest of the film is. It’s not fair, but the film is almost a victim of its own success in this case. Minor details end up amplified as a result, but given the complexity of the narrative, the performances, exceedingly high level of filmmaking and the balance of emotions,Prisoners is not a film to be missed.