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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Prisoners review: the unbearable darkness of being

Prisoners green light Hugh Jackman Paul Dano

Please see this movie. We need to let Hollywood know that there is, in fact, an audience for sophisticated drama for adults.
I’m “biast” (pro): love the cast; the trailer showed promise

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

Ah, so this is what a grownup movie outta Hollywood feels like! They’re such rare beasts these days that my first instinct when I encounter one is to do a double-take and look for the foreign indie wizard behind the curtain.

And there he is: the acclaimed Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language film, is making his English-language and studio debut with Prisoners. But fair play to Warner Bros. for granting the flick a budget generous enough to snag some of the most interesting big names working today, and for giving it a wide release that means mainstream audiences will have easy access to it.

Now: everyone go see it. Please. We need to let Hollywood know that there is, in fact, an audience for sophisticated drama for adults.

There’s nothing “alternative” about this movie except that it requires nothing fantastical or imaginary to ensure that it is thoroughly gripping and frequently unexpectedly ugly, in the most intriguing way possible. Quite the contrary: it is the depressing mundanity of the horrors on display that makes it so intense, so uncomfortable, and so brilliant. It’s unvarnished, dismal reality from the opening moments, when we are welcomed to a Thanksgiving day in Pennsylvania that is all foggy gray haze lingering around bare trees, pouring rain, and general outdoor misery — that’s what Thanksgiving typically is in the Northeast, not a fall-foliage wonderland (the leaves are dead and fallen by late November). I was particularly struck by this, and by the lack of prettifying pretense Villeneuve maintains throughout. This ain’t no story about tragedy striking out of the blue and shattering an idyll. It’s a story about tragedy revealing some just barely disguised other tragedies that have been ignored, forgotten, or never seen as tragedies at all.

It’s like this. Two families, good friends all around, have gathered together for the holiday: the Dovers, Keller (Hugh Jackman: The Wolverine, Movie 43) and Grace (Maria Bello: Grown Ups 2, Abduction), and the Birches, Franklin (Terrence Howard: Movie 43, On the Road) and Nancy (Viola Davis: Beautiful Creatures, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close), and their kids. After the celebratory dinner, their two little girls, both around five or six years old, go play outside… and disappear without a trace. The police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal: End of Watch, Source Code), home in quickly on a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano: Ruby Sparks, Cowboys & Aliens), who drives the creepy serial-killer RV that was seen in the Dover-Birch neighborhood and who exudes creepy serial-killer guilt. But the girls are nowhere to be found, Jones protests his innocence, and there’s no physical evidence in the RV. Loki has to let him go.

Keller, enraged and grief-stricken, takes matters into his own hands, harassing Jones even as Loki continues to search for the girls and their kidnapper.

And this is where it starts to get really interesting.

Prisoners is, of course, primarily a suspense thriller, the kind in which we’re invited to try to solve the case along with Loki… and also, in this instance, along with Keller’s parallel, er, investigation. But it challenges us to reexamine the appearance of guilt — and this is a fascinatingly trying experience. Shocking actions are committed here, some quick and out of the blue, some building slowly in their horror. We witness many of these actions along with other characters on the screen who are as horrified as we are, and who have as complex — and as sometimes as knee-jerk — reactions as we do. We know some characters are guilty of some things, and we make assumptions about others that we are forced to later reconsider.

The other superb movie Prisoners reminded me of, even though it’s not really very similar at all, is The Silence of the Lambs. Screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) has taken a trope of movies about terrible crimes — the exploration of criminal psychology — and expanded it to look at the aberrant psychology that drives us all… except it’s not truly “aberrant” if it’s prompted by the ordinary awfulness of the world and the things that happen to us in our formative years. Everyone here is a prisoner of their past. The tragedy for some of them is that their past is an inescapable prison. The tragedy for others is that their prison is not inescapable, yet they stay there anyway.

This is a film that it’s probably best to know as little about going in as possible, and I don’t want to spoil. But I have to tell you that for all its other laudable aspects, Prisoners is worth seeing, too, for the brisk spectacle of no-fucks-given by Jackman and Gyllenhaal for whether we actually like their characters at all. Loki exudes something like a serial-killer vibe himself: he blinks too much, for one thing, which doesn’t necessarily sound weird until you see it. And the hints of his dark and complicated past remain nothing but tantalizing hints that leave us wondering precisely how dark and complicated his life has been. As for Jackman: Keller’s rages aren’t like anything we’ve seen the actor do before. If you thought his Wolverine was intense… Well, as with the entirety of Prisoners, we are reminded that reality has a much bigger capacity to terrify than fantasy.


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Prisoners (2013)
US/Can release: Sep 20 2013
UK/Ire release: Sep 27 2013

Flick Filosopher Real Rating: rated MBB (contains men behaving badly)
MPAA: rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout
BBFC: rated 15 (contains child abduction theme, strong violence and strong language)

viewed in 2D
viewed at a private screening with an audience of critics

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine | Rotten Tomatoes

If you’re tempted to post a comment that resembles anything on the film review comment bingo card, you might want to reconsider.

  • RogerBW

    I thought the trailer looked direly generic. I do hope that other people who don’t like generic films don’t get that impression from it.

  • dkimmel

    You have got to be kidding. I felt like a prisoner enduring this dull, unengaging mess.

  • Lisa

    Love the cast. Hope this does really well. I’ve read nothing but good reviews out of Toronto for it and I’m so glad we’re getting it next week instead of next year!

  • I respected Incendies & also really like the cast of Prisoners. But…I hate these kind of movies. There are way, way too many “kid in danger, here’s a likely suspect” movies already. It’s funny because I didn’t see The Call for almost the same reason.

  • It’s not really that kind of movie.

  • But that’s the way it’s being marketed. I MIGHT go see it, based on your review and Rotten Tomatoes rating it at 78%

  • JackCerf

    The beginning of Last of the Mohicans has Hawkeye killing a deer and saying a prayer over it. The beginning of Prisoners has Keller Doveer (Jackman) saying a prayer as his teenage son shoots a deer that will becomeThanksgiving dinner. Much follows from the fact that Dover conceives of himself as the Deerslayer, the Man Alone, and has no faith in civilization or its institutions. Can’t say anything more, except that this is a Canadian director’s take on a society very unlike Canada in its individualism, its acceptance of violence, and its universal access to firearms. A definite must see.

  • Joe Blowe

    Isn’t that theme of some guy going Rambo or Dirty Harry been done to death in American movies over the decades?

  • singlestick

    As a quick aside, this movie confirms my crazy notion that Jake Gyllenhaal would have made a great Dark Knight in the upcoming Superman vs Batman.

    That said, this movie has stayed with me in a lot of ways. I’ve already seen the movie derided by some as easy Oscar bait, or knocked for some of its plot contrivances, and yet I think it is a very powerful meditation on the thin line between justice and vengeance. Yes, some of what is depicted here is ugly, and it seems at first surprising that Hugh Jackman would play a character whose rage takes him from (perhaps) righteousness to totally wrong-headed self-righteousness. But he throws himself fully into the role and you can’t help but watch him go down a very dark path.

    And yet the film not only makes clear its idea that there is evil in the world, but that there are people who willfully commit horrible acts, to themselves, and to others; and we see the sad toll that evil brings about, that crimes, solved or unsolved, leaves a sad residue of damage. The title of the film, “Prisoners,” is suitably ironic, and not in a stupidly cute of faux-edgy way.

    Jackman’s anger is matched well by Gyllenhaal’s more muted, contained, directed fury. It was odd to see Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terrence Howard reduced to almost bit players. But there is a narrative logic in how these actors play their parts, and when Bello says to Jackman, “you were supposed to protect us,” you understand exactly the source of her despair.

    One thing about the film that I have mild reservations about is how some scenes simply fade to black, where in a more conventional movie, the resolution of these scenes would have been played out more. And there are a few times when it seems improbable that Jake Gyllenhaal’s cop would be operating without a partner or backup, but again I see the narrative point, and accept that the film is not trying to be an entirely realistic police procedural.

    I also want to note that Roger Deakins’ cinematography is superb.

    This is one hell of a start to the fall movie season.

  • singlestick

    RE: Isn’t that theme of some guy going Rambo or Dirty Harry been done to death in American movies over the decades?

    “Prisoners” avoids all that. There are themes related to the idea of taking the law into your own hands, but explored in some unexpected and thoughtful ways.

  • singlestick

    I recently listened to a film review podcast about “Prisoners.” The critics were disappointed that they did not get a standard police procedural, or something more like the obsessive detective in “Zodiac,” and almost whined that the film was “too arty.” Kinda sad; I expect more from professional critics.

    I never saw the trailer for the film. I had seen the positive review here, and heard some of the positive buzz from some of the film festivals where the film was shown.

  • Kelly

    Mary Anne,

    What do you think of the review of your reviews on Existimatum?

    http://existimatum.com/critic/maryann-johanson-flick-filosopher

  • Bluejay

    There are now reviews of reviews?

    I look forward to the reviews of the reviews of the reviews.

    Actually, I don’t.

  • Danielm80

    Don’t ask that question. If Existimatum tries to review MaryAnn’s review of their review of her reviews, then the world as we know it will cease to exist.

  • LaSargenta

    Ok, that’s a weird site.

  • NigelMatip

    my gf’s sister just got a fantastic gold Audi S5 Convertible from only workin part-time on a pc. great

  • NigelMatip

    ….—-goo.gl/LqjQnD (Home more)

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