A mystery-thriller where the end justifies the means
If there is one studio that has become synonymous with the art of crime it has to be Warner Bros. Pictures. Building a reputation for its prolific gangster films in the 1930s and film noirs like The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep in the ‘40s, the studio would continue to flex its criminal muscle through the ‘90s with classic police procedurals Seven and L.A. Confidential. Not to mention putting the “Dirty” in Dirty Harry, and who can leave out Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas and The Departed.
Knowing all that it’s no wonder why Warner Bros. would want to wrap itself around a property like Prisoners, a whodunit that preys upon the fears of every father: Not being able to protect one’s family. A really good mystery is a rarity for the silver screen, much like westerns. They are a dying breed. The reason may be due to the proliferation of TV police procedurals; you can’t switch to CBS without running into a dozen or so shows with a procedural theme – where one missing persons case can be condensed into a single 45-minute episode.
When a film like Prisoners comes along, it tends to stick out. Where most television mysteries fail is by emphasizing the detectives and their attempts to solve a mystery. Here we have a whodunit that reaches beyond solving the person responsible for the crime. That’s a credit to Aaron Gruzikowski’s screenplay, a multi-faceted and well-structured piece of writing that alternates between two primary characters – a grieving father, whose little girl has gone missing, and the detective working the case, examining all possibilities in her disappearance.
From the opening logo we get a sense that dark times are ahead. Instead of Warner Brothers’ traditional golden shield with a cloudy sky backdrop, the shield is black and metallic on a black background. Obviously a subtle hint that the audience will be far from having a sunny disposition for the next two-and-a-half hours. Prisoners contains subject matter that will be tough for some to handle. It has nothing to do with its graphic nature, though there are a few moments where one might mutter yeesh under his/her breath, and more to due with the topic of child abduction and abuse, and possibly death. In the blink of an eye it switches from being a film where two families share Thanksgiving together to become a story of two men and their desperate attempt to reach a positive conclusion. And along the way, each minute that passes by the story becomes that much darker, bleaker.
Prisoners is only a straightforward mystery in its onset. Much like all TV episodes involving missing persons it begins with the set-up to the disappearance. Two neighboring families in western Pennsylvania gather together for Thanksgiving. The Dovers, headed by father Keller (Hugh Jackman) and mother Grace (Maria Bello), make the small trek over a few houses to visit the Birches, with dad Franklin (Terrence Howard) and mom Nancy (Violet Davis). Each family has a teenage sibling along with a little girl – Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons). As the adults continue chatting away after dinner, the girls go outside and play. Time passes and they don’t return. Alarms signals don’t sound, not at first. Maybe the girls went back to the Dovers house; little Anna did talk about wanting to find a red whistle. But after a quick reconnaissance of the neighborhood ends without the girls turning up, they call the police, who in turn calls for an Amber Alert.
The addition of the police allows Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to enter the story. An aloof plainclothes cop with a strong record of closing cases, Loki is a man of mystery. Sporting tattoos on his fingers and around his neck, no effort is made to explain the history behind the black ink that covers parts of his body. He also has a nervous eye twitch, blinking his eyes at an excessive rate every so often, that is not explained or called into question by others around him. Working the case, initial clues point to a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but it proves futile; it turns out he has the mental capacity of a ten year old, and in no way could orchestrate an abduction of two girls in broad daylight. Mounting circumstantial evidence points to his possible involvement, however, and that’s enough for grief-stricken Keller who decides to do what the police can’t, and that’s get a confession out of Alex, using any necessary means.
Turning from a family man pure of faith to man of vigilante rage, Keller becomes a monster himself. Without going too far into details just know that it will become very apparent where you will find yourself wanting to comfort Alex and his current circumstances.
The narrative includes situations and clues that will bear importance as the story moves along. There may be one or two plot holes, but Gruzikowski’s script is as taught as Denis Villeneuve’s direction. Without resulting to jump scare tactics, the Canadian-born director is able to keep the audience on a tight rope building tension as he examines one father’s desperation and the extreme lengths he’ll go to reach solace.
Coming out of festival screenings the press was highlighting Hugh Jackman’s performance. Jackman is definitely noteworthy, and he does more with his role than just scream from the tops of his lungs. Though for me the one who made the film truly exemplary is Jake Gyllenhaal as the detective. Jackman may bring the fire and brimstone, but don’t discount Gyllenhaal’s nuanced turn as a world-weary cop who probably has more than a few skeletons in his closet.
Prisoners may not reach the heights of The Silence of the Lambs but it’s not aiming to have its liver and fava beans and eat it too. This is a grown-ups movie in the grandest sense, looking to appeal to an audience that isn’t ADD afflicted, who can handle a film of considerable length even if the subject matter is less than considerable. Prisoners doesn’t play to favorites or tries for the easy ending. Some might find frustration with how the film ends, but if you’ve been paying attention the ending justifies Keller Dover’s means. And that my friends is why it is a powerful movie and should be discussed long after the screen fades to black.
Director: Denis Villeneuve Writer(s): Aaron Gruzikowski Notable Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!
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