“Prisoners” Movie Review

     The mid to late 90s spawned a number of crime thrillers that ranged from the classic “Seven” (1995) to average, somewhat forgettable films like “Kiss the Girls” (1997) and “The Bone Collector” (1999).  Director Denis Villeneuve’s new film “Prisoners” fits somewhere in between the above examples, boasting a game all star cast and a smart intriguing screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski.  “Prisoners” doesn’t explore any new territory or break new ground, but it does utilize each actor’s talents to maximize each scene as we are led through the typical genre tropes and basic police procedurals for the types of crimes depicted.  Star power normally rules, but where Villeneuve really succeeds is taking an actor like Hugh Jackman out of his comfort zone and showing the audience a different side of his considerable range.

     The characters aren’t developed much when “Prisoners” hits it’s stride only ten minutes into the film.  Two families are getting together for Thanksgiving, but as the meal is being prepared, the younger kids get restless and want to play outside.  They’re supervised by their older brother and sister during the first round, but are allowed later to somehow leave the watchful eye of their parents.  Before we know it, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Simmons) are missing and after a frantic search of the immediate area, the police begin a state wide search.  During the kid’s first outing with their older siblings, we are given a glimpse of an old beat up RV, strangely parked in front of an abandoned house in the neighborhood.  During the initial search, early clues arise which make Anna’s father, Keller (Jackman), suspicious of the RV’s involvement.  This leads to the RV being found and stopped by police.  The occupant being taken into custody for questioning.

     The detective assigned to the case, Loki, is played with a very cool, calm demeanor by Jake Gyllenhaal, yet we are led to believe over time he has a very rough edge about him.  There’s something in his past we can’t quite figure out, but we remain curious about the tattoos on his knuckles and neck, as well as a notable nervous eye twitch. The filmmakers don’t really tell us anything about any of the characters before the story goes in full motion.  It’s very telling the first we see of Loki is during a lonesome on duty Thanksgiving dinner in a deserted Chinese restaurant We see a detective who is merely waiting for the next despicable crime to occur so he can go about doing his thankless job.  His first task is to question the now prime suspect in the two girls disappearance, the RV’s driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano).

     The interrogation goes nowhere as it is deemed Alex has the capacity of a 10 year old.  As parents, neither Keller or Franklin (Terrance Howard) are ready to accept any excuses, especially Keller, whose animal instincts begin to match the very advice he was given as a child during his first hunting trip.  Advice he gives his son while they are seen killing their would be Thanksgiving dinner during the film’s opening.  Keller’s survival instincts have kicked in and he feels its his duty as a father to find the person responsible for his daughter’s abduction at all costs.  Eventually, this causes Keller and Franklin to do the unthinkable, which I’ll leave for your viewing of the film.

     Guzkowski’s script sends the story into several interesting places littered with religious overtones.  There are many scenes where characters feel the need to pray, each with different reasons and motives.  With the second act dedicated to Keller and his handling of a would be suspect, Loki moves on and looks into other possibilities.  This leads Loki into a the world of an individual not unlike Kevin Spacey’s character in “Seven”, all of which is not what it seems.  While the onscreen drama is primarily a duel between Jackman and Gyllenhaal, well timed scenes featuring Viola Davis (Joy’s mother), Maria Bello (Anna’s mother), and Melissa Leo (Alex’s Aunt) keep the proceedings running at the proper emotional pitch.  This not only enables the film to breeze through it’s bulky 153 minute run time, but also gives each actor worthy material to exhibit their sizable talents. 

     Taking a page out of the Cohen brothers great film “Fargo”, Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins (A Cohen brothers veteran) sets up many scenes with wide angle shots of colorless older homes surrounded by the dead of winter.  Even though things appear safe in the beginning, the viewer will come to realize this the perfect setting for such a grisly tale.  “Prisoners” is filled with people committing the very nefarious acts which decay our society on a daily basis and the environments the actors operate within isn’t unlike the rancid bathrooms and dark hallways you would see in your standard horror film.  No doubt, the mood created by the constant wet rainy weather and the  dilapidated  homes and vehicles contributes greatly to the overall feeling of dread.  Regardless of what is being said, you always get the feeling something bad is about to happen.

     The people portrayed as good in the film so quickly turn on the man charged with helping them, that it’s amazing Loki didn’t just call in sick the next day.  Yet he perseveres  through the obstacles he faces  during the investigation and for the most part keeps a level head in the face of adversity.  Yes, cops do that everyday.  Loki’s dedication to service makes it easier to forgive some of the film’s procedural errors, some of which would’ve had him  suspended immediately.  Ultimately, the focus is on two men looking to achieve the same goal, but their approach is significantly different.  How these approaches play out takes the audience to literally the last frame.