Writer: Casey LeeWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
Gathering dust on the screenwriters' Black List since 2009, "Prisoners" had met many suitors before it was made. With directors like Bryan Singer and Antoine Farqua planning to put it on camera, Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay should be grateful that it landed into the hands of director Denis Villeneuve, who is making his English language debut after his Oscar nominated French-Canadian entry 'Incendies" in 2010. Instead of having Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg or Christian Bale as the lead, we got Hugh Jackman instead, and it is hard to imagine "Prisoners" being any better without him.
On a rainy Thanksgiving, the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are having the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) over to celebrate the holiday. The gathering of the two families is warm and they seem to be very close to each other. After a good meal of venison (hunted and provided by the Dover men in a religious opening) as they settle into good company, the two sweet youngest daughters of the families, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), ask for permission to go back to the Dover's, who lived just across the street, to search for a whistle that Anna had misplaced somewhere in their house.
When a little miscommunication results in the two young girls leaving without any supervision from their elder siblings, all the relaxed cheers of a good Thanksgiving is drained and turned into panic when both girls are suddenly nowhere to be found. The only thing that could explain for their disappearance is an RV that the elder siblings had saw earlier that was parked further down the street separating both houses, which was gone when both families start to frantically search for their missing girls.
When the local police are called in and spot the identified RV, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver (Paul Dano) but do not find the girls in the vehicle. As a large scale search at the nearby woods where the RV was last spotted captures the headlines, Loki's interrogation proved unfruitful when the driver is tested to have the mind of a 10-year-old, who doesn't seem able to comprehend the amount of trouble that he is in. After forensics give the RV a clean bill that neither of the girls were in it, Loki is challenged to let the prime suspect go due to the lack of evidence to place charges on him as per protocol.
If you've seen the trailer for this, then you know what happens when Hugh Jackman's Kelly Dover gets word that the only person who is most likely to be involved in the kidnapping of his daughter is allowed to walk free without giving any leads on where the girls might be kept.
Guzikowski's simple but brutally natural extension of the investigation thriller poses a very tough question when one loses faith in the effectiveness of law enforcement to alleviate anguish when the worst happens; a question that has surely been asked by anyone if they had been a victim of a crime involving personal loss in their life. This is the worst nightmare come true for Jackman's God-fearing Keller, who firmly believes in his motto of 'pray for the best, prepare for the worst'. Allowing this tragedy to happen is an intolerable affront to his obsessive belief in self-reliance, and his method of making penance is gut-wrenching but also understandably a primal human response. There is a debate for vigilantism and letting the justice service runs its course to serve all.
While the setup of Guzikowski's plot does invite clever discernment to solve the 'whodunnit' case, as Loki spends a good deal of his screentime chasing every lead imaginable in his hardest assignment yet, there is not much satisfaction for anyone who spends most of the two and a half hour running time to beat his perfect crime solving skills to figure out who is the culprit. By then they would have already missed out on the heart of "Prisoners". This is a curious case to explore the conscience, not so much in rewarding the cognitive.
Part of our answers comes from the twisted direction that "Prisoners" takes later on, and this is why the superb performance takes precedence over the plot. Jackman's characterization of Keller Dover is consistent and appropriate. He brings out a desperate fury that does more damage, both physical and emotional, with just a hammer than adamantium claws, but shifts into deep despair that you could see his humanity killing itself so effortlessly that only so few actors can do so well. This is amplified with the support of Maria Bello as Keller's wife, Grace, whose nervous breakdown is tormenting and certainly adds more gravity to seeing a family crumbling under the weight of worry, fear and the psychological toll it takes on a mother who may never see her daughter alive again. Viola Davis as the mother of the Birches may not be as damaged, but as a family they hold up their pains sufficient enough.
Gyllenhaal's intensity is calmed since we last saw him in "End of Watch" to serve as a fractured reflection to Jackman's rage in their scenes together, but gives subtle nuance as a compulsive cop with a reputation and integrity to uphold. A noteworthy mention should also be given to Paul Dano as the mentally challenged Alex Jones, who manages to stay as a convincing wildcard during the investigation and while being tortured.
But the stars given for "Prisoners" doesn't stop there as it also comes from the direction of Villeneuve, who knows how to wound the coil and letting the intensity spring in the scenes with atmospheric dread and chills. The acts committed by Keller is as horrifying as watching a torture flick, but this is made even more so because we can emphatise with Keller who justifies it even against the moral reasoning of the Birches. This is captured by the distinct cinematography of Roger Deakins, especially when "Prisoners" go to dark and disturbing places.
"Prisoners" never fails to capture your attention because it has the rare exception in the writing, directing, cinematography and acting, even if the pacing is a little too consistent that it may drain the stamina of a viewer when it reaches the drawn out conclusion. But like the soft whistles at the end, this is a pleasantly haunting opener to the Fall season of releases and one can only hope that more pieces with exceptional storytelling would be dug up in the following weeks of the year to come. Cinema Online, 14 September 2013