Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo.
I don’t know where to begin, but by saying that Prisoners is a truly fantastic film. From pacing, to shooting, to the superb cast, to the excellent screenplay – I just don’t know how I hadn’t come upon the movie until now. But I remedied that, and am so glad I did, because the film is phenomenal and needs to be seen. While the movie did get one Oscar nomination for best cinematography, it otherwise went unnoticed by all the major awards, which is baffling when you find out that Captain Phillips was nominated for Best Picture over this film and Jonah Hill got an acting nomination the same year, but it mostly explains why perhaps Prisoners hasn’t found the acclaim it deserves. That said, the film is excellent and needs to be seen.
The story begins in rural Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving Day. Keller (Hugh Jackman, X-Men) and Grace (Maria Bello, A History of Violence) and their two children head for dinner to the home of their neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard, Hustle & Flow) and Nancy (Viola David, The Help), who also have a couple of children of their own. After dinner everyone settles in for a post-feast food coma. The adults talk around the table, the two teenagers vegetate in front of the tv, while the two youngest girls play on their own, unattended. And then the shit hits the proverbial fan. Nobody seems to be able to find the girls. Immediately everyone begins to search for them and panic sets in. The police is called, which is when Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, Donnie Darko) enters the picture. The investigation sets its sights on a young disturbed man named Alex (Paul Dano, Little Miss Sunshine), who lives with his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo, The Fighter). Insufficient evidence causes strife amongst the families of the little girls. The investigation takes us down what seem like bizarre detours, and at some points it seems like the film is more interested in red herrings than the actual investigation into the girls’ kidnapping. But the movie knows exactly where it’s going, and the viewer should hold on to their faith, for everything is resolved in the most expert of ways.
The screenplay is by far superior to what I expected from a movie in this particular genre. Every character, even those who aren’t given much screen time, are believable and ring true and are given a role to play. The pacing, which is also a merit of the people behind the camera, is expertly delivered, not missing a single beat, and maintaining a sense of dread and urgency throughout the 153 minutes of screen time, which is very hard to do for that long. The shots are as beautiful as they are bleak, and the camera works in really interesting ways, choosing angles that are unexpected and yet so right. Denis Villeneuve has recently become someone to watch with the one-two punch of Sicario and Arrival, but he had known what he is doing behind the camera for some time now. This Canadian filmmaker is quickly turning into one of the great new auteurs in cinema. Let’s hope his decision to tackle the sequel to Blade Runner is not a deviation towards big budget crap movies, and that he keeps on making beautiful original stories with meaning and emotion.
And the cast? Wow! Some of the actors in the film are not favorites of mine, and yet they work so well in this film. Until this film I have never really got the point of Hugh Jackman. From his god-awful goat vibrato singing in the many musicals he seems to love so much, to the gruff and stoic one-dimensional Wolverine he’s been playing his entire career, Jackman hasn’t really stretched much, nor cared to. But here he plays a simple man who understands family, loyalty, and the power of a fist. He is a man on the verge of a violent breakdown, and his conviction of right and wrong is so powerful that we understand his actions, even when we find them reprehensible. Terrence Howard impressed me, as a soft spoken and heartbroken father, a weak man who goes with the flow, even when the flow is really really dangerous. Maria Bello, who I’ve loved since ER, is given the depressed and destroyed mother role, but through her suffering we also see a mother who pushes throw the depression and paranoia that ends up being a beautiful performance. Viola Davis is given the most complex and surprising character in spite of her limited time on screen. Blurring the lines between frantic and terrified mother and someone willing to do whatever it takes to get her little girl back, she never ceases to amaze with her range and the strength of her presence. Gyllenhaal has become a very impressive actor who overcame his pretty boy past and morphed into an amazing actor. I didn’t really understand the weird eye-twitch tick he decided to give his character, but overall it’s a great performance. Dano and Leo are also great as the nephew and aunt, and do a lot with very little, performing anguish, coldness, and weirdness while still remaining believable throughout.
I really loved the movie, and the title, without giving anything away, is so complex and multilayered that it fits perfectly the movie. It may be, in fact, one of the best movie titles in recent memory, because it’s simplicity is actually full of complexities by the movie’s end credits. I cannot say enough about this movie, other than beg everyone to give it a chance. It’s that good!