I love a good thriller. And “Prisoners” is probably the best thriller I’ve seen since “Zodiac,” which I happen to think was the best film made from 2000 to 2009. Not flashy, but instead gritty, gripping and grueling, “Prisoners” offers real entertainment and a filmmaking lesson on pacing that refreshed throughout.
There are many good elements to “Prisoners,” and quite frankly, they all work very well together. Leads Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are complicated characters who wax and wane for power over the other, only to realize they are in the fight of their lives with the other, not against him. Together, they establish physical and emotional boundaries, draw their lines in the sand and push back on one another to serve their respective interests. In the end, their relationship’s dynamic carries “Prisoners” home.
After watching “Prisoners” in the theater, I walked away understanding why it might be more appealing to some than others. It’s long at 153 minutes. It is brutally violent. Its crime is a terrifying ordeal for any parent to even ponder. It is a dark, yet approachable and tension riddled experience, one of those movies that you don’t watch, but rather that you feel. If you are willing to invest, however, the return will far outweigh the investment.
The film begins on Thanksgiving Day, and we meet Keller Dover (Jackman), daughter Anna (Erin Geraismovich), wife Grace (Maria Bello) and son Ralph (Dylan). The entire family treks their way to visit nearby friends Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), his wife Nancy (Viola Davis), oldest daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and their youngest daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). After dinner, Anna and Joy go outside to play, but never come home. A frantic search ensues, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case.
Loki spots an RV the girls were playing on before their abduction, and arrests the drive, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). After interrogating Alex and discovering he has the IQ of a ten-year-old, he is released due to lack of evidence to his Aunt Holly’s (Melissa Leo) custody. As Keller confronts Alex during his release, he becomes enraged and convinced Alex knows more than he admitted to. He abducts Alex and imprisons him in an old, rundown apartment building he owns. Keller begins to torture Alex and demand he tell him what happened to the girls. He solicits Franklin for help, and he reluctantly agrees.
As “Prisoners” slowly but methodically moves its plot and characters forward with intense drama and thorough development, we see Loki struggle to connect the dots between this case and others. We see Keller embody a violent, sadistic persona that drives him to disregard all law and order. We see families pushed to the brink, abuse drugs and alcohol and suffer unimaginable anguish and pain. We also get blindsided with more than a few plot twists that are so well timed and placed, you can’t hardly expect, let alone guess, what results they will bring forward. “Prisoners” establishes its plot very early on, probably within a mere 20 minutes, simultaneously drawing audiences in so it can grasp their hands and lead them into its dark, cold web of turmoil, torture and terror.
The ensemble cast develops some eerily authentic chemistry from the get go. Bello and Davis are strong females, but it’s very clear their strength only goes so far. Such strength is hard to maintain given the circumstances, and we see the emotional and physical toll the film’s storyline takes. As “Prisoners” stretches itself out over days and weeks in suburban Pennsylvania, the families, supporters and suspects jockey for supremacy and control over one another, but often come up wanting despite their quest.
“Prisoners” might be the coldest movie I’ve ever seen. I don’t mean in terms of tone or storyline, mind you, but rather the physical setting. Given the location where everything goes down, and given the time of year, we feel the frigid temperatures, snow showers and flannel hats everyone is forced to deal with. Searches for the girls happen in isolated wooded hilly areas during the early morning below freezing hours, while Keller’s makeshift torture room is in a building with no heat or light (though it does have hot running water). As Loki combs around town for clues and wanders into and out of more than a few harrowing encounters, his heavy breathing freezes throughout. The gravity of the plot, combined with the elements, will lead you to reach for a blanket during “Prisoners,” no matter the time of year.
I suppose if you were to try and generalize the film, you could lean on the old ‘desperate people do desperate things’ mantra. But “Prisoners” isn’t really that simple. Jackman’s character is driven by adrenaline, fury and what he believes is rational anger. Gyllenhaal’s character always gets his suspect, and the thought of not making someone accountable in this circumstance clearly eats away at him. We can’t get into either man’s head, but if actions speak louder than words, it’s fair to argue that both are driven to make their own vision of success, results or justice become a reality by any means necessary. Often, I asked myself if I would go to similar ends, and while I like to think I wouldn’t, my gut tells me that desperation can motivate and change a person’s will and desire more powerfully than most other human emotions.
Speaking of human emotions, we get quite a bit of them during “Prisoners.” But at the film’s conclusion, we don’t feel exhausted or overwhelmed by them. Of course, we don’t feel inspired either. Rather, I think the experience that director Denis Villeneuve delivers fearlessly presents itself as artistic connotation translated into raw, powerful and emotional filmmaking. His approach reminds me so much of David Fincher, and his aggressively high standards and attention to detail. Gyllenhaal knows Fincher’s approach quite well, given his work in “Zodiac,” and he raises himself to a new category. As for Jackman, you could argue he deserves consideration for a Best Actor nomination in the Spring.
There is so much good stuff here, and it all works well together with what seems like minimal effort. “Prisoners” is best watched from start to finish, uninterrupted, at home on a dark, cold Winter night. And as you pop the Blu-ray into your home media system, don’t forget that it’s a title you will feel rather than just simply watch.
“Prisoners” looks extremely sharp in the 1080p High Definition 1.85:1 video transfer that Warner Bros. provides. It is an extremely dark film, both literally and figuratively, so please don’t expect bright colors to take center stage at any point. The coloration, though, is extremely good, as is the clarity. The details the filmmakers utilized to connote the frigid undertones were often subtle, but they sure were effective visually given how cold I felt while watching “Prisoners.” The cinematography is also solid, as sharp camera angles and cuts between characters during tense moments convey mayhem.
The English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack is also a winner, as every frustrated shout and angry demand is heard with superb audio clarity. What I think I’ll remember most about the “Prisoners” audio experience, however, are the footsteps. Characters crunch through leaves, smash snow and ramble up and down wooden staircases all the way through, and the sound attached to these movements adds depth to our understanding the location and context therein. Music selections are ever so well placed and articulated, thereby deepening the tension and anxiety further.
A scarce offering here, with two featurettes provided: “Every Moment Matters” and “Powerful Performances.” We get some good insight, but it is hardly enough to compare to the film watching experience. My advice: skip these, and watch the film again.
A Final Word:
Meticulously detailed and ever so well executed, “Prisoners” deserves recognition as one of 2013’s best made films. It delivers in so many ways, all of which make it among the best thriller experiences in recent memory.