Thanksgiving dinner takes an awful turn for two families when both of their young daughters disappear. The only clue that Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) has to go on is a mysterious RV that was parked in the neighborhood at the time of the disappearance. It does lead to a suspect, but when lack of physical evidence results in his release, patriarchs Keller Dover and Franklin Birch (played by Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard respectively) begin conducting their own guerilla-styled interrogations. All the while, time is ticking, and the longer the girls are missing, the less likely their chances of survival. It’s every parent’s worst nightmare.
The mystery at the heart of the film is a well-crafted one, which to me means you don’t know where it’s going or what the final answer is, but once some revelations start coming through, you see that all the clues were there from the beginning, and if you had really tried you might have been able to solve it yourself. A good mystery makes you want to watch the movie again to see all the puzzle pieces you missed. Prisoners is a good mystery. But that’s not all it is.
When kidnapping suspect Alex Jones (played Paul Dano) is released from police custody, Keller abducts him, and that’s when the movie gets really interesting. We’ve seen the father of a kidnapped child offer a ransom to anyone who turns in the kidnappers (Ransom). We’ve seen the father of a kidnapped child hunt down and murder each and every person involved in her disappearance (Taken). Keller is not Mel Gibson or Liam Neeson. He doesn’t possess a particular set of skills acquired over a very long career that makes him a nightmare; he’s a nightmare because he’s a very human parent trying to find his missing child. How far is he willing to go? How far would you go?
This movie traverses some very dark alleys and calls into question the idea of good and evil and what it takes to for the former mutate into the latter.
There certainly are some unique characters in this universe. That they feel completely real says much about the work that went into the film. Let’s start with Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki. We’re not told anything about his character except that he’s solved all his missing person cases thus far. Instead we learn about him through his tattooed knuckles and the tattoos that creep out of his shirt collar up the base of his neck and the nervous tick that causes him to compulsively blink and the way he talks to his boss. We’re quickly aware that he’s a good cop with an edge. We can only imagine the life he led before he entered law enforcement, and that’s what makes him so interesting: the mystery of who he is.
As for Keller, I didn’t like him. I understood he was a very angry and hurt and scared parent, but he’s the kind of grieving parent who gives the lead detective a hard time about not finding his kid instead of appreciating the work going into finding her. He’s got an edge too. We see it in the distant way he interacts with his son and how he preps for the worst in life. What made his story interesting was observing how his “goodness” is tested, though I wonder how much was there to begin with.
Then there’s Alex Jones. All I’ll say is that he’s sort of a simpleton, who may or not be playing everyone, including the audience, for fools. I never knew quite what to make of him, which is an ambiguity that helped color in my feelings about Keller.
This is probably the best I’ve ever seen Hugh Jackman perform. My goodness. In this year’s The Wolverine, his character was muscular with thick sideburns and claws coming out of his hands, and it was hard not to see Wolverine as Hugh Jackman with thick sideburns and claws coming out of his hands. Jackman is much less physically altered in this film, yet I lost him. He could have been kidnapped himself and replaced by Keller Dover because that’s the only person I saw. Jackman gets to play the contented father for a few minutes, and then after the kidnapping he’s all rage and confusion and frustrated impotence, and he nails it all. THe anguish radiates off of his face. Damn, Hugh. You surprised me.
Detective Loki drives the mystery of the movie further, and Gyllenhaal does a good job of coloring in the character given how little we know about him. It’s not a breakthrough performance, but the fact that he can make us want to know more about the detective speaks to quality of the performance.
Paul Dano has taken a number of quirky, queer roles in his career (see Little Miss Sunshine, There Will Be Blood, and Gigantic), and with Alex Jones he takes queer to a new level. Dano was a perfect fit for the demands of the role, and he too disappears into his character.
But in a movie full of good transformations, let’s talk about the most stunning one: that of Melissa Leo into Holly Jones. Before I saw Prisoners , I’d heard an interview with Leo on the Ron and Fez show. Then I saw the movie. Then I walked out of the theater. Then I remembered the interview and the fact that Leo was in the movie, and I played the film over in my head thinking there had been some mistake. I didn’t remember seeing her in it at all. Then, as I got to my bus stop, it hit me: Holly Jones! She was Holly Jones! Alex Jones’s aunt! The movie ages her by maybe 20 years or so, bestowing her with gray hair, pale skin, and wrinkles. She even speaks in a different register. She is unrecognizable, which kind of makes me want to exclude all this talk about her from my review, so you could have the same joy of discovery I had. It was a great experience not knowing she was in it and then realizing, as opposed to watching the movie and trying to find Melissa behind all the Holly. Then again the movie is so well done, and Leo’s low-key performance so well played that you probably won’t be thinking about any of this as it goes on.
Terrence Howard and Viola Davis have nice turns in the movie but ultimately aren’t given much time in the 2.5 runtime. I think seeing more of them could have only helped the movie, but in the end this isn’t meant to be their story. How interesting it would be, though, to see this movie played out again but from their perspective. They’ve got moral dilemmas to contend with too.
The setting of Prisoners is irrevocably tied to the story in my mind. It takes place in a Pennsylvania town at Thanksgiving time. It feels like a factory town, full of brown buildings and blue collar people trying their best to get along. The weather is poor for most of the movie. There are sudden downpours and snow. Everywhere feels damp and cold. It sets the perfect tone for a story with this subject matter.
I should admit now that I’m not very good at noticing film scores as I watch a movie. I’m usually way too focused on what I’m seeing to notice, at least consciously, what I’m hearing. I think that’s usually a good thing though. I’d rather not notice a score that’s offering subtle support to a movie than be distracted by a bombastic one. I did however watch a brief video in which composer Jóhann Jóhannsson discusses his score:
“It was kind of clear very early on what kind of instrumentation I wanted to use. And it was clear that we needed an orchestra and strings would be very important, but very, kind of, cold strings. We didn’t want to milk the emotion. It’s not about heavy vibrato and really, kind of, emotional string music. Not at all. We tried to keep it very cold.”
In regards to cinematography, there was one scene near the end of the movie that I found rather beautiful. It involves a car speeding down a freeway as it’s raining. The camera is in the car, and then it’s above the car, as the car weaves in and around all the other road traffic. It’s really gorgeously shot, and the fact that it’s done at one of the tensest moments of the film works to create a truly memorably moment.
Do I want to see it again? This is an easy yes, both to revisit the mystery now that I know the ending and to rewatch all the great performances.
|Zodiac: Directed by David Fincher, with a screenplay by James Vanderbilt, and starring Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, and Jake Gyllenhaal again, Zodiac is a mystery thriller based on the true story of the search for the San Francisco Bay Area serial killer, known as "the Zodiac killer." I saw this many a years ago, but I remember it having one of the tensest scenes I've ever experienced in cinema. (Buy it on Amazon.com: Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray)|
|A Perfect Getaway: This is a rather entertaining little film about a couple who, while honeymooning in Hawaii, meet another couple and begin traveling together. When they learn of a recent, nearby murder, things become a bit more terrifying. It's more thriller than mystery, but there is a a bit of cat-and-mouse and maybe a surprise or two. Written and directed by David Twohy. Starring Milla Jovovich, Steve Zahn, and Timothy Olyphant. (Buy it on Amazon.com: Streaming, DVD, Blu-ray)|
|Spoorloos (The Vanishing): The year was 1999, and I'd just seen The Blair Witch Project twice. Both times I left theater in chills because of its haunting ending. After reading everything I could find about the movie, I came across a reference to a mystery called The Vanishing (or Spoorloos in Dutch), which someone claimed had an ending to rival that of The Blair Witch. Spoorloos is a 1988 film about a man's three year search for his missing girlfriend after she disappeared from a car service station. Eventually he is contacted by the kidnapper.
Directed by George Sluizer, written by Tim Krabbé (who also wrote the novella upon which the movie was based), it stars Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu, Gene Bervoets, Johanna ter Steege. There was a 1993 U.S. remake simply called The Vanishing, which I haven't seen. That one stars Jeff Bridges and Kiefer Sutherland and only has a 47% RottenTomatoes score as opposed to the Dutch version's 100%. (Buy the Dutch version on Amazon.com: Streaming, DVD)