What would you do if your young daughter was kidnapped, and there were no leads whatsoever, aside from the one person that you were absolutely convinced took her but who has been written off by the police? Prisoners is brutal, well-acted, and—for 153 minutes—extraordinarily fast-paced. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are both at the top of their games, and the rest of the cast is phenomenal—with all of the Academy Award winners and nominees listed above the title on the poster, how could you expect any less? Along with the acting, a great script, and remarkable cinematography by the living legend Roger Deakins, this is definitely one to look for during awards season.
The film stars the aforementioned Jackman as Keller Dover, a religious man and a small business owner living in rural Pennsylvania with his wife (played by Maria Bello), his teenaged son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and his adorable daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich). The movie begins on Thanksgiving, as the Dovers are eating at their friends and neighbors the Birches (led with great performances by Terrence Howard as Franklin and Viola Davis as Nancy, along with their children Elizah and Joy (Zoe Borde and Kyla Drew Simmons), roughly the same ages as Ralph and Anna, respectively. When Anna and Joy walk over to the Dover residence and never come back, the movie really begins.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, set up as a somewhat lonely detective without much of a family who throws himself into his work. When he’s called in on the case, he has reason to suspect that a local loner named Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano in an extremely layered and unnerving performance) might be the culprit, but when there is no evidence, Jones is let out to go back to his aunt and caretaker Holly (in another Oscar-worthy performance by Melissa Leo). Keller Dover is not convinced at his innocence, however, and he sets up a rudimentary torture chamber to try to get the truth of his daughter’s whereabouts by the man he thinks took her from him. Many moral questions are raised throughout the film and the plot is so carefully plotted that you never really see what twists and turns are coming around the corner. The ending is unpredictable and immensely satisfying, as the message is subtle, leaving the audience to decide who is right and who is wrong.
I could go into more detail about the intricate web of a plot, but that would be no fun. Suffice it to say, Aaron Guzikowski’s sophomore effort (penning the 2012 Mark Wahlberg film Contraband) is terrific, combining fleshed out characters, elements of mystery worthy of Hitchcock, and understated symbolism to become one of the best scripts of 2013. Along with this script is an astounding job by relatively inexperienced Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. He does in incredible job with a slew of the best actors in Hollywood, and his subtle filmmaking techniques keep the audience guessing and keeps forcing us to ask the question, “What would I do if I were in that situation?” The answers to that question never come easy and are never forced upon us. Villeneuve treats the audience with respect, and is never heavy handed—in a film whose message could have just as easily been shoved in our face.
Another thing that must be discussed is Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, which is absolutely beautiful, but never overpowering. Deakins, who has been nominated for 10 Academy Awards without yet winning, paints a picture, telling us the story of a man whose rage is the one thing standing in the way of finding out what happened to his daughter. The stark and rainy Pennsylvania backdrop is shown with mounting gloom and emptiness, coaxing us into the world of the characters as the tension builds with increasing fervor. Although he’s likely to have plenty of admirable company in February, if Deakins is, in fact, nominated for his 11th Academy Award, he might just have a shot at his first statue.
The edge of your seat will have plenty of company in this incredibly taut and thought-provoking thriller. At 153 minutes, when all is said and done you may have to go to the bathroom, but you certainly will not be looking at your watch. Career performances across the board, mind-blowing cinematography, and an outstanding screenplay combine to make this one of the best films of the year. See it in the theater—it’s worth it.
Movie Review by Mike Danner