×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

Film Review: ‘Prisoners’

With:

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.

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.

Production:

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.

Crew:

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

With:

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.

More Film

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame' Reviews: What the Critics Are Saying

    It’s been a long year for Marvel fans since the release of “Avengers: Infinity War,” but the wait is nearly over. The finale to the Infinity Saga is here, and while most diehard fans will know to avoid them for fear of spoilers, early reviews are mostly positive. Last year’s “Infinity War” took home an [...]

  • American Made

    'American Made' Plane Crash Lawsuits End in Settlement

    The producers of the Tom Cruise film “American Made” have settled all litigation surrounding a 2015 plane crash in Colombia that killed two pilots. The settlement resolves pending suits in both California and Georgia. A notice of settlement was filed in Santa Monica Superior Court on Monday. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed. The [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    Film Review: 'Avengers: Endgame'

    SPOILER ALERT: The following review contains mild spoilers for “Avengers: Endgame.” The culmination of 10 years and more than twice as many movies in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Avengers: Endgame” promises closure where its predecessor, “Avengers: Infinity War,” sowed chaos. That film — which revealed that the cookie-cutter uniformity of all those MCU movies had [...]

  • Avengers: Endgame

    'Avengers: Endgame': Why a $300 Million Opening Could Be Impossible

    “Avengers: Endgame” is preparing for a staggering debut between $250 million and $268 million in North America alone. Unprecedented anticipation surrounding the Marvel juggernaut has some particularly optimistic box office watchers tossing around even higher numbers, estimating the superhero tentpole could clear nearly $300 million in ticket sales in its first three days. If any film [...]

  • Leonardo Dicaprio Nightmare Alley

    Leonardo DiCaprio in Talks to Star in Guillermo del Toro's 'Nightmare Alley' (EXCLUSIVE)

    Leonardo DiCaprio is in negotiations to star in Fox Searchlight’s “Nightmare Alley,” Guillermo del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning film “The Shape of Water.” Del Toro will direct the pic and co-wrote the script with Kim Morgan. “Nightmare Alley” is being produced and financed by del Toro and J. Miles Dale with TSG Entertainment, with [...]

  • Ben Affleck

    Ben Affleck to Star in and Direct World War II Caper 'Ghost Army'

    Ben Affleck will star in and direct the Universal Pictures caper “Ghost Army,” based on the book “The Ghost Army of World War II,” written by Rick Beyer and Elizabeth Sayles, as well as the documentary “Ghost Army.” It’s unclear when the movie will go into production as it’s still in development and Affleck is [...]

  • 'Yesterday,' 'Maiden,' 'The Farewell' Set for

    'Yesterday,' 'Maiden,' 'The Farewell' Set for Nantucket Film Festival

    The Nantucket Film Festival has set Danny Boyle’s Beatles-themed fantasy “Yesterday” as the opening night selection for its 24th edition. Universal Pictures’ “Yesterday,” which stars Himesh Patel as a struggling singer-songwriter who wakes up one day to realize he’s the only person who remembers that the Beatles ever existed, will open the fest, which runs [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content