By Melissa Agar
Prisoners (WB, 2013) – Director: Denis Villeneuve. Writer: Aaron Guzikowski. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde (as Zoe Soul), Erin Gerasimovich, & Kyla Drew Simmons. Color, 153 minutes.
How far would you go to protect the ones you love? How dark are you willing to go in the name of love? Those are among the questions that lie at the core of the dark and intensely compelling Prisoners, a film that deserves to be the first among the fall releases to have a horse in the Oscar race.
The film stars Jackman as Keller Dover, a working class family man who lives with his wife and kids in a small Pennsylvania town filled with rolling hills and dense woods that give it an ominous air. As the film opens, Keller has taken his teenaged son Ralph (Minnette) hunting, using it as an opportunity to teach the boy about honor and courage, a lesson that is clearly influenced by some “survivalist” philosophy and includes the nugget, “The only thing standing between you and death is you.” The Dover family, which also includes wife Grace (Bello) and young daughter Anna (Gerasimovich), spend their Thanksgiving with their neighbors down the block, the Birch family led by music teacher father Franklin (Howard), veterinarian mother Nancy (Davis), and daughters Eliza (Borde) and Joy (Simmons). While the kids are out walking, Joy and Anna are drawn to a creepy looking RV parked down the street but are wisely shooed away by their older siblings, who get a creepy vibe when they hear music playing inside the RV and sense they are being watched.
Later, the two little girls ask to walk back to the Dover house to look for a lost whistle, and that is the last that the family sees of the girls. Ralph remembers the RV and is able to give an accurate enough description that the vehicle is quickly found by tough police detective Loki (Gyllenhaal). After an attempt to flee, the driver, a mentally-challenged young man named Alex Jones (Dano) is taken into custody despite there being no evidence of the girls having been in the trailer and Alex, who is identified as having the IQ of a 10-year-old, being mentally unable to answer the questions. The police have no choice but to release Alex into the custody of his aunt Holly (Leo), a move that infuriates Keller, particularly after he confronts Alex and the young man utters a cryptic message that leads Keller to believe that Alex knows more than he’s admitting to the police. Dissatisfied by the lack of progress Loki is making in finding the girls, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands and kidnaps Alex, hoping to beat the truth out of him. Meanwhile, Loki, who has a perfect track record when it comes to solving cases, begins following any lead he can, knowing that the odds of finding the girls alive grow worse with each passing day.
In many ways, this film reminded me of one of my favorite films of the past 10 years, Clint Eastwood’s dark and brilliant Mystic River. Like Sean Penn’s Jimmy from Mystic River, Jackman’s Dover is inherently a good man pushed over the edge into a darkness that comes easier to him that appearances would indicate. The Keller we meet in the opening frames is a deeply spiritual man, one who says the Lord’s Prayer while hunting. Faith and spirituality lurk beneath the surface of the film; from Keller’s prayer to the religious music playing inside the RV to later conversations about the role spirituality plays in our quest for justice. Morality and justice seem at odds with another in this world, forcing a decent man like Keller to take matters into his own hand and descend into darkness as he beats and tortures Alex and bringing Franklin and Nancy along for a ride. The darkness comes easier to Keller than to the Birches, and even when evidence begins to lead Loki and the police away from Alex, Keller refuses to give up on his belief that Alex knows where the little girls are.
This is, without a doubt, the finest performance Jackman has ever delivered on film and is likely to make him an Oscar contender this season. There is a raw intensity to his Keller that is often uncomfortable to watch. He owns this film, unafraid to allow his Keller to descend into darkness. He isn’t afraid to allow his Keller to become unlikable even as we sympathize on a certain level with the desperation that fuels his rage against Alex and the terror that drives him to darker and darker depths. His Keller screams and cries in the face of that terror, refusing to surrender, driven by the father’s primal instinct to protect his child at any and all costs. It is a riveting performance.
Jackman is pitted against Gyllenhaal, although the two men grow increasingly more alike throughout the film. Like Keller, Loki clearly is no stranger to darkness nor is he immune to succumbing to that darkness in his quest for truth. More than once, Loki resorts to violence when faced with an uncooperative suspect. He, too, gets rough with Alex, and more than one suspect ends up bloodied as a result of meeting Loki. Gyllenhaal instills his Loki with a nervous tic that seems to betray that struggle he has between dark and light. Ultimately, his Loki believes in justice in a way that Keller doesn’t, but the film also seems to offer forth the idea that true justice can’t exist without both sides that these men represent. It’s a tough theme to wrap your head around as an audience member, and Prisoners is most definitely not a feel-good fall movie that will have you leaving the theatre believing in the ultimate beauty of life in general.
Despite the darkness that lurks in every frame of the film, there is no denying that Prisoners is an incredible film. I can’t remember the last time I felt this engaged in a film, whether it was squirming in my seat with suspense or weeping in the face of so much raw grief and emotion on the screen. It is a film filled with enormously complex characters who defy easy labeling of “good” or “bad,” one of those films that you find yourself sitting in the seat as the credits roll unsure of what to say or think in that moment. (The end of the film is sure to make people talk and elicited an audible response from many members of the audience at my Saturday afternoon showing.)
Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski (both of whom have relatively few credits of note) have created a riveting mystery populated with deeply complicated characters who obliterate the line between good and evil on more than one occasion. It is one of the best films I’ve seen this year, a film that I will likely still be haunted by weeks from now. It is a film loaded with talent, and it is a likely early contender for recognition as the awards season kicks off in a couple months. It is a truly excellent film.