PRISONERS: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, directed by Denis Villeneuve (146 min.)
Welcome to the fall movie season, where films for grown ups happen.
Prisoners is the first in a long and seriously credible line of fall films for people who have graduated high school. There are no explosions, no fart jokes, no capes or superheroes. Well, no superheroes in the traditional sense. But there is a great deal of tension, of drama, of thrills and tears and grit and moments where you will often forget to breathe. Prisoners is a phenomenal thriller with a group of actors who I could watch stand in an elevator together for two hours. Lucky for us, though, they have some meaty roles to embody, full of conflict and humanity, and a screenplay full of twists and turns that keep the momentum pushing forward.
Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a hardworking husband and father to a teenage son and younger daughter, Anna. We open on a subtle but telling scene of Keller and his son hunting deer in the woods on Thanksfgiving Day. We find out through conversation that Keller is a man of great faith, dedicated to God and always staying prepared for whatever natural disaster might end civilization. His preparedness is one of the great ironies early in the picture. Keller, his wife Grace (Maria Bello), and their kids walk down to their friends’ house for Thanksgiving dinner. Their friends are Franklin and Nancy, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, and they have a young daughter the same age as Anna. That afternoon the girls go outside to play and before long the adults realize they have disappeared.
The panic starts slowly, as I imagine it would, with curiosity transforming into a rushed walk, darting eyes, and once all grown ups find themselves back in the same room without results, the panic reaches a higher level. Until the police are called. And hours turn into days, and desperation and sadness travel into anger and frustration. The range of emotions in such a short period of time must be unbearable, and on the faces of these characters it is displayed with great passion and earnestness.
The detective on the scene is Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal in what I think is the role of the film. Jackman has the showy role, the easier one because he is given all liberties to flip out, to scream and cry and search wildly in the night for his daughter. But Gyllenhaal’s role requires more nuances, and nuance is what he brings. We are never shown anything about Loki’s personal life as he searches tirelessly for the missing children. There are small details in his character – tattoos, a blinking twitch, the long hair – that suggest a past unlike most detectives in these stories. While these parents are slowly going mad, it is Loki’s resolve and his calmness that keeps the picture on track. He is the perfect guide for an audience. The creation of Loki for this story is one of the film’s deft touches of brilliance, and the performance of Gyllenhaal is paramount.
The first lead in the case is a shabby RV, driven by a strange young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). He is arrested, questioned, but with the mind of a ten-year old the police see him as an innocent and let him go. This decision does not sit well with Keller, who accosts Alex outside the police station. Alex says something to him that suggests he knows where the missing girls may be, and this eats away at Keller. His pleas to Loki go unheard by the police Captain. Keller makes a desperate decision; he kidnaps Alex and holds him, torturing him to try and get answers. This is one of the many turns Prisoners takes, a morality conundrum which becomes front and center. I am sure some fathers, like Terrence Howard’s Franklin, do not agree with the abduction even though they desperately want their daughter back. But I am certain there are more fathers siding with Keller given the circumstances.
The abduction of Alex is only the tip of the iceberg regarding the twists and turns and the mystery of what happened to these girls. I won’t go into any more details for fear of inadvertently spoiling the story. I will go on about my admiration for this film, a bold and unnerving thriller from top to bottom. Running nearly two and a half hours, nothing about Prisoners feels long; there are endings stacked up upon endings, and none of them are gratuitous or forced. Even the true ending itself is left open. As I said before, Hugh Jackman has the easier role, but that is no slight on his performance. He is magnificent as a man trying to keep himself together and correct what he feels to be a mistake by allowing someone to harm his family. Gyllenhaal is a revelation, and the reset of the cast fills in the gaps with their own powerful turns. While Howard, Davis, and Bello have limited scree time, their desperation is felt through various moments on screen.
Credit director Denis Villeneuve for balancing Prisoners perfectly between these large actors delivering large performances, and the very intimate, very human nature of the story. These homes and this neighborhood rang true, and when he decided to embellish in certain scenes, the embellishments paid off by ramping up the tension. This may be a tough film for parents to see. As I will be a parent early next year I wonder how I will receive this film this same time in 2014. But either way, Prisoners is a wonderful scream from the hilltops, announcing the fall movie season.