Beautifully shot and wonderfully acted, Prisoners is emotionally challenging and very satisfying despite minor story flaws and pacing issues.
When his daughter and her friend disappear from the neighborhood, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a contractor and survivalist, takes matters into his own hands when suspicion falls on a mentally challenged young man (Paul Dano) and the police fail to hold him and lead detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) pursues other leads. Just how far Dover will go to find the truth is one part of the equation and the procedural tenacity of Loki is the other. Conflict is abound as a man’s love for his daughter clouds his judgment and pushes him to do unspeakable things.
Prisoners is a long and emotionally brutal film but it never loses the audience’s attention through compelling twists and a wonderful amount of depth and texture. This is a movie of layers and it operates well on all of them if you allow for some story issues in the mystery portion. To begin with what I enjoyed the most, the film offers up complex characters with hints at complicated pasts but gives the audience just enough to know that there was something that happened. This allows the characters to be complex without bogging the film down with otherwise extraneous detail. The doling out of information through dialogue, physical features and behavioral mannerism works amazingly well to let the audience in on the existence of history without the need to spell it all out for you. The best example of this is Gyllenhaal’s Loki who has obviously seen some shit. He has neck and knuckle tattoos that suggest some manner of undercover involvement, possibly with a cult, and he never unbuttons his shirt below the neck suggesting that maybe he has some scars to hide. Couple this with a blinking eye tick and a generally stylized way of walking and you have a guy who gone through a lot but doesn’t need to tell you the details.
This is an enormously effective technique of showing and not telling and provides the viewer with information and texture without taking up extra screen time. It also makes the world feel more complete and authentic to know that these characters existed before the film and, some of them, will exist after. This is just one of the ways you see director Denis Villeneuve’s confidence in both his abilities and the material.
Another way is that the film does not editorialize or pass judgment on the actions of its characters but rather lays it all out for the viewer to take in and form his or her own conclusions. Given what Dover does in the film and the degree to which his friend and the father of the other missing girl Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) is complicit in that it would be easy as a filmmaker to condemn the characters but here we have the story play out and the audience is left to decide how they feel about what they are seeing. The morality in question reminds me somewhat of the debates people had following Gone Baby Gone and I imagine there are will be many such debates amongst friends who go to see this film.
The emotional level the film plays on is absolutely punishing and even in the face of highly questionable actions it is impossible not to feel for the parents of the missing children as time stretches on and the unlikelihood of finding them alive grows. Likewise, it is difficult not to find sympathy for Paul Dano’s Alex Jones and it becomes difficult to watch regardless of whether he did it or not. The film’s ending is thus very satisfying as it is not all emotionally neat and tidy but with enough resolution to feel like the exploration is complete. The emotional layering here is the mark of a true craftsman and it is a marvel to watch just on that level alone.
Before getting to the final layer, the photography of the film must be mentioned. Director of Photography legend Roger Deakins is behind the camera here and he gives us shots that are breathtakingly beautiful. Even if every other aspect of this movie was horrible the film is so gorgeously shot that it is worth the price of admission alone. More than once I found myself taken aback by just how terrific the movie looks and how expertly the camera moves. Deakins is always terrific and here he especially shines in a movie that is often dark but never hard to see with a perfect blend of light and darkness.
Now on to the mystery layer which is the only place the movie really stumbles. It isn’t a bad mystery but it suffers slightly from letting the audience in on details before the characters know. This isn’t to say the audience has been shown things that the characters haven’t but rather the audience is given the same thing the characters are and there are very obvious connections to be made and you have to watch Detective Loki not make the connection for a maddening amount of screen time. The net effect here is that there are stretches in the film that feel long and laborious. This is really too bad because on the whole the story and mystery are both solid and satisfying. The issues here don’t break the movie but they do keep it from being the perfect film it could possibly have been.
The performances were tremendous across the board. Jackman, usually likeable even at his gruffest and most surly moments, stretches here to a character that you revile while sympathizing with. Terrence Howard, likewise, delivers his conflict heartbreakingly and convincingly. Maria Bello is gut wrenching as Dover’s wife Grace who cannot accept that her daughter has been taken and is convinced she just ran away and will come back at any moment. Viola Davis gives a counterpoint with strength and poise as Nancy Birch even when her compassion is at odds with her desperation to get her daughter back. Jake Gyllenhaal is excellent here as Loki, a character that could have felt like every other driven detective we have seen but here feels alive and complex thanks to a master class in non-verbal acting as well as expert line delivery. Paul Dano likewise does terrific work with his eyes and mannerisms and goes a long way to garner sympathy for someone who may be despicable. Melissa Leo, as Jones’s aunt does equally terrific work here as well.
Conclusion [9.0 out of 10]
Prisoners isn’t perfect but it comes pretty close. A gorgeous and confident film it is also one that challenges the viewer both morally and emotionally. If you are interested in a drama that challenges your notion of what is right and wrong as well as takes you on an emotional and intellectual journey then this is the film for you. Seeing it in a theater is probably a good idea if only for the gorgeous shots although it will look great on the eventual bluray with an awesome TV. Anyway you choose view it, Prisoners is highly recommended.