Film Review: ‘Prisoners’

Prisoners Hugh Jackman

The wages of sin, guilt, vengeance and redemption weigh heavy on the characters of “Prisoners,” a spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller with a complex moral center that marks a grand-slam English-lingo debut for the gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. Powered by an unusually rich, twisty script by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) and career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, this tale of two Pennsylvania families searching for their kidnapped daughters sustains an almost unbearable tension for two-and-a-half hours of screen time, satisfying as both a high-end genre exercise and a searing adult drama of the sort Hollywood almost never makes anymore. Fully deserving of mention in the same breath as “Seven,” “Mystic River” and “In the Bedroom,” this Sept. 20 Warners release may prove too intense for some viewers, but should ride strong reviews and word of mouth to above-average R-rated returns. It immediately enters the ring as an awards-season heavyweight.

Though at first glance the pic would appear to have little in common with his previous work, Villeneuve has long shown an interest in the psychological and emotional consequences of violence, as evidenced by 2009’s serenely chilling, black-and-white “Polytechnique” (about a real-life Canadian mass shooting) and especially 2010’s Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” which “Prisoners” echoes in its fragmented central mystery and its theme of the good and ill transmitted from parents to children. But in every respect, the new film finds Villeneuve working on his biggest and most ambitious canvas to date and, perhaps most impressive, flawlessly catching the moods and mores of small-town, God-fearing America.

The movie announces its measured, quietly confident tone right from the opening scene of a father-son deer-hunting trip, the first of many images of predators pursuing their prey. “Be ready,” says the father, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Jackman), to the teenage boy (Dylan Minnette), a crucifix dangling from the rear-view mirror, a late autumn chill hanging in the air. Back at home, where Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), safely await his return, the basement is stocked with enough emergency provisions for a nuclear holocaust. (Among other thing, “Prisoners” is very much a movie about what people have in their basements.) All the canned goods in the world, however, cannot shield the Dovers from what is about to happen next.

Theirs is the kind of quaint suburban street where people walk over to the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and feel relatively insulated from the world’s violent ills. Yet it is during just such a Thanksgiving that Anna wanders off unsupervised along with 7-year-old Joy, the daughter of family friends Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, respectively). By dessert, both have vanished without a trace. The only clue: Earlier in the day, the girls were seen playing around a camper van parked in front of a vacant house down the road, the faint sound of a radio suggesting that someone was inside, patiently watching.

Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is spending his Thanksgiving alone, flirting with the waitress in a lonely Chinese diner, when he first responds to the case. In the best film-noir manner, rain is sheeting down, and the camera of the great d.p. Roger Deakins (who has shot the film in wintry blues and blacks with an expressionist edge) pushes in slowly from behind. Loki, we are told, has never failed to solve a case, though this is at odds with the man’s solemn demeanor, his haunted gaze and the elaborate tattoos jutting out from his collar suggesting reserves of private rage. Compare this to the eager-beaver murder sleuth Gyllenhaal played in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and the full breadth of his impressive range immediately comes into focus.

The camper van is soon located along with its owner, a gangly, inarticulate man-child named Alex (played to creepy perfection by Paul Dano), who lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) in the kind of run-down, cluttered tract house where serial killers and other movie deviants tend to reside. But awareness of such familiar tropes — and awareness of our awareness of them — is one of “Prisoners’” canny strengths. So it turns out that Alex is not the kidnapper — or at least, that there’s no physical evidence tying him to the scene — and the police are forced to let him go. Which is when Keller, who’s as sure as we are that Alex is guilty, takes matters into his own hands, abducting the suspect and chaining him up in an abandoned apartment building that belonged to his father. The movie’s tally of kidnappers now stands at two.

And the puzzle of “Prisoners” has only just begun to assemble. Following a lead to the home of an elderly priest (Len Cariou), Loki discovers a rotting corpse in a hidden cellar. Then, at exactly the one-hour mark, another shifty young man appears on the scene, triggering a whole new set of suspicions. All the while, Alex sits in hock, violently tortured and interrogated by Keller (who tells his wife he’s off helping the police) in an effort to discern the girls’ whereabouts.

With each successive revelation, Guzikowski’s brilliant script satisfies the necessary machinations while always flowing effortlessly from his vivid, multi-dimensional characters. That delicate balance extends to Villeneuve’s direction, which maintains a vise-like grip on the viewer without ever resorting to cheap shock effects or compromising the integrity of the human drama. Yet this is also a film that breathes, that knows it has the audience in its palm and can take time out for the kind of incidental, character-deepening scenes that usually end up on the cutting-room floor. In less assured hands, a movie called “Prisoners” with a plot like this would be an invitation to disaster, heavy on self-conscious allegory, symbolism and moral debate. (Everyone, don’t you see, is a prisoner of something — of time, of grief, of his own psyche.) In Villeneuve’s, nothing is belabored, the thorny questions of right and wrong bubbling under the surface without ever being declaimed.

Jackman has simply never been better than as this true believer forced to question his beliefs. Effortlessly, the Australian actor projects a solid, rugged Americanness, the acme of a man whose home is his castle and who sees himself as his family’s protector. It is a performance void of vanity or the desire to be loved by the audience, and moment to moment it is exhilarating to watch. In just a handful of scenes each, Bello and Davis suggest the full, inexpressible weight of motherly grief. Leo, given a role rife with opportunities to ham it up, instead plays things with the sober conviction of a disappointed life, another standout in a movie with nary a squandered performance in the mix.

In addition to Deakins’ stellar work, longtime Clint Eastwood editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach have done a formidable job of assembling the pic’s densely constructed narrative web. Score by Icelandic composer Johann Johannsson (also making his big-studio debut) strikes just the right haunting, mournful notes.

Film Review: 'Prisoners'

Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Calif., Aug. 27, 2013. (In Telluride Film Festival; Toronto Film Festival — Special Presentations.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 153 MIN.


A Warner Bros. release of an Alcon Entertainment presentation of an 8:38 Prods./Madhouse Entertainment production. Produced by Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner. Co-producer, Steven P. Wegner. Executive producers, Edward L. McDonnell, John H. Starke, Robyn Meisinger, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson.


Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Screenplay, Aaron Guzikowski. Camera (Deluxe color, 35mm), Roger Deakins; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; music, Johann Johannsson; music supervisor, Deva Anderson; production designer, Patrice Vermette; art director, Paul Kelly; set decorator, Frank Galline; set designers, Mayumi Konishi-Valentine, Aaron Linker; costume designer, Renee April; sound (Datasat/Dolby Digital/SDDS), Mary H. Ellis; sound designer, Tom Ozanich; supervising sound editor, Alan Robert Murray; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Greg Rudloff; visual effects, Pacific Title & Art Studio, Luma Pictures; stunt coordinator, Steven Ritzi; assistant director, Donald L. Sparks; casting, Kerry Barden, Paul Schnee


Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian.

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  1. Sandy says:

    This movie is silly. Are we to believe that a twitchy detective with a history of solving all his cases is going to lose it and jump on a suspect in an interrogation room? Are we to believe that a serial killer leaves her front door unlocked? Are we to believe that a seasoned detective does not call for backup several times in a row? Are we to believe that this detective does not know to call for an ambulance for a sick child?

  2. nick says:

    I found this movie largely unsatisfying. Unless I have poor attention skills, there were too many attempts to confuse the viewer but they were not connected in any meaningful way. The priest, the strange guy who buys kids clothes and puts them with snakes. It seems misleading and convoluted just for the sake of filling time. By the end, I felt little interest in the conclusion regardless of what happened. Also, in a storyline that’s been done far too many times, the Prisoner wants to be deemed well written, but there are far too many details and conflicts that are resolved by coincidence rather than well thought out writing.

    All that being said, the film was well shot and the acting saved it. Jake and Hugh were very believable and I will continue to support any films that they do in the future.

  3. Barbara says:

    Loved the movie, but a little confused about a few details. How did the little black girl get away, who was the prison guard that supposedly commit suicide that Jake was looking at, did the priest get in trouble for the murder of the man in his basement, why was the psycho guy parked in front of his house, did he know that was his home?

  4. JMR says:

    This is BS… I never wrote comments, but must warn the public of this over-rate disaster… I heard most people say “it’s horrible”… It ended stupidly and without regard to the feelings of those viewing this disaster… DON’T see it

  5. Liz says:

    Thank you for such a detailed review. I wasn’t sure I was going to see this, but now I definitely will.

    The description of how the girls went missing brings back some memories for me. My family’s from a small town in Indiana. When I was 8 years old and my brother was 5, we were spending the 4th of July at my aunt’s house with my parents and the rest of our family. I was supposed to watch my brother. I got distracted, he wandered off, and no one could find him for several hours. My parents even called the police. Fortunately he was at the next door neighbor’s, playing video games with their 5 year old son. I got a stern talking-to and my brother was told never to go off without telling someone again.

    Well, he never really learned to do that, but we never had a scare like that again, thank God. I was too young to really appreciate how incredibly terrifying such times are for parents. Kids wander off. It’s inevitable. No parent, no matter how caring or vigilant, can watch their children every minute of every day. All you can do is pray that when the inevitable does happen, that it doesn’t intersect with the unbearable. For those parents who that does happen to, my heart just breaks.

  6. Sheral Wooden says:

    Its good to bring reality to light.My daughter was help for three days.They wanted ransome posted through criegs list.My nightmare is not over.Identity theft Im a web developer,nurse,hair dresses Partner,Private investor.Most of all Im always in danger with no help I can see,talk to or touch.Im blocked from my life.13 to 17 yrs

  7. Maggie Hefley..Santa fe says:

    Looks like a winner to me! Congratulations! Maggie

  8. The only troublesome aspect of the very informative film review here is this: “Yet this is also a film that breathes, that knows it has the audience in its palm and can take time out for the kind of incidental, character-deepening scenes that usually end up on the cutting-room floor.”

    Having established that the film is more than two-and-a-half hours (153 minutes)…with an apparent need to be “heavy on self-conscious allegory, symbolism and moral debate.” As a novel, such depth would be expected; in a film with an audience conditioned (frankly, willing) to give anywhere from 80 to 120 minutes of their life to watch a movie, the length could be deadly.

    The story, itself, has been told many times before (nothing new under the sun, and all that) but the way in which the narrative is rendered makes all the difference. But the time one’s butt is in the seat…PRISONER suggests a flick best enjoyed in one’s home theater (re: VOD same day in theaters).

    How “good” can any film be relies upon the eye of the beholder; how long a film runs is something everyone can agree upon.

  9. Nicole says:

    Denis Villeneuve is one of the best young filmmakers in Canada today. Both his pervious efforts have been sensational. Polytechnique especially is searing and captures an event that still looms large in our Canadian consciousness. Both of his previous efforts were engaged on the subject of violence, how it is used, why and to what end, its impact. I wonder how it will be employed here.

    Glad to hear his English debut is so promising. The cast looks truly phenomenal! I have no doubt they will deliver. I feel like this film will be a challenge to sit through due to its subject matter like his previous efforts. He does not shy away from making challenging films.

  10. Clint says:

    Gyllenhaal deserves a nomination, a sort of compensation for having snubbed his amazing performance in the brilliant EOW last year

  11. Roger T says:

    My predictions: acting nominations for Hugh Jackman (Lead), Melissa Leo (Supporting) and possibly Jake Gyllenhaal if he goes Supporting–Best Actor just looks super competitive this year. Also possible nominations for the director, screenplay and Best Picture.

  12. Clare Munn says:

    As someone who got scared in Shrek, it was clearly apparent to me watching the screening without bolting and being absolutely riveted, that this was a slice of genius. It is absolutely brilliant. Kudo’s to director Denis Villeneuve; actors, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrance Howard, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, et al not to mention the very talented crew, DP etc. The editing is also flawless and music is perfection. I believe the psychological question it brings up about family and the lengths one goes to protect is an honest and timely one.

  13. David says:

    Gyllenhaal is increasingly good


  14. harry georgatos says:

    INCENDIES is a masterpiece. PRISONERS has a lot going from director,d.p and it’s writers.

  15. kenmandu says:

    Mystic River, In the Bedroom – very very over-rated.

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