Just yesterday I reviewed the most powerful film I have ever seen regarding a man’s reaction to a heinous action brought against his family. As it happened the next film on my schedule shared some themes in common albeit not taken to the extreme level of intensity as I had just encountered. ‘Prisoners’, directed by Denis Villeneuve employing a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski is certainly less graphic than yesterday’s consideration but it achieves an intensity of its own relating the themes with a unique and powerful narrative voice. Fundamentally the movie poises a question that will continue to haunt you through the running time if the movie extending to long after it ends; "how far will you go to protect your family". The easy response given in the comfort and safety of your living room inevitable would be along the lines of "anything it takes". The expertise demonstrated on both sides of the camera allows this film to exhibit the naïve nature of such a glib answer.
Thanksgiving is traditionally a time of happiness bringing families together for copious quantities of food and for man an over indulgence in football. For Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) this is what he had in mind as he and his family prepared to spend the holiday with their friends and neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch. In typical suburban fashion Keller’s wife Grace (Maria Bello) was close to Viola and their children frequently an amorphous cloud floating between the homes. The children in question are young girls Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons). The spark igniting the film’s momentum occurs that when the girls disappear without a trace. The police are summon and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) who locates an RV that had been in the vicinity of the homes. Loki questions the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). While attempting to flee he is apprehended and placed under arrest. The man is developmentally challenged with an IQ hovering around that of a ten year old child. Distraught Dover kidnaps Jones bringing him to deserted apartment building holding him for days with no results despite the deployment of some ‘aggressive interrogation techniques’. Prolonged but legal interrogation yielded nothing of any help in locating the missing girls but when Dover comes close to the man he whispers one of the better creepy lines of dialogue used in a thriller, "They didn't cry until I left them". No one else heard the comment but it obviously shakes Dover to his core.
Loki attends a candle light vigil for the children hanging back watching the crowd. In what is admittedly a plot contrivance the suspicious man in the crowd wore a hoodie which in contemporary context immediately makes him a person of interest. Although overused as a trope it was handled well enough here to be accepted as a necessary evil to expedite the story and retain the building impetus of the pacing. Yes, as soon as the man spots the detective he runs initiating the requisite pursuit. The man turns out to be Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian), a clerk working at a local store. His home is covered with drawings of mazes, books and patrolled by live snakes. The icky factor moves into the red when children’s bloody clothing found on the scene belonged to the missing girls. Although the blood was porcine the atmosphere of danger remains unabated.
Finally Jones confesses that this is not his real name and that he managed to escape from the real madman’s deadly maze. Visiting Jones’ aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo), Dover is told that he had an accident involving snakes when he was ten and has always been reticent to speak about it. A synopsis such as this in order to cloak necessary twist is a bit convoluted buy within the context of the film the execution is nearly flawless, this is the kind of movie that is best experienced and not dissected on the point by point basis. This is a testament to the taut script by Mr. Guzikowski, and the deliciously teasing directorial styling of Mr. Villeneuve. Between the two the resultant tale is mesmerizing, working its way deep into our psyche eliciting intense emotional responses.
As with any mystery worth its salt this one contains a one expertly woven into the story. Frequently you can tell you are being offered a false set of clues by how obvious they appear. In this story the early investigation led Loki to dead man in the basement of a nearby priest. The body is wearing a pendant depicting a maze. This is reinforced later when they examine the suspect’s home which dwelt on that motif. With his pair of storytellers there was a natural feel to the progression of events and how the circumstances are construed. This provided extremity fertile ground for an amazingly talented cast. Although the script provided the framework for the performers it was the director who was talented in the precarious aspect of his craft to know when to guide an actor and when to give then free reign to do what they do best; bring their character to life. The evidence of this is noticeable throughout the cast and naturally enough with the emotional performance of Mr. Jackman but in a wonderfully subtle fashion Ms Bello and Ms Davis give an extra dimension to their parts as the worried mothers. That archetype under lesser abilities would be little more than filler is transformed into an integral part of creating and sustaining the mood of frantic desperation seething just beneath the façade of trying to hold everything in check. The realism this brings to the film is extraordinary pulling the audience inexorably into the mindset that is overwhelming Dover. Without this done as carefully as executed here the movie would not be capable of sustaining not only the emotional impact is does but bore its way into the psychological centers of you mind that balance civilized rationality and an animalistic imperative to protect your family. Jackman is an ideal choice to depict a man poised on this dangerous precipice. This stems not just from the duality of his signature comic book persona but is ingrained in the natural talent of the actor.
To ground that highly charged performance Jake Gyllenhaal’s character of the police detective juxtaposes a professional trained in emotional detachment and dedicated to deductive reasoning. This contrasts the Dover character making both characters excels even more. The film is not only a winner it will help redefine the psychological thriller resetting its bar of excellence.
Prisoners: Every Moment Matters - Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal Explore
The Tense Relationship Between Keller and Loki