From the look of the trailer of Prisoners, it looked like one of those movies that are probably great but you’re not gonna enjoy watching it even remotely. But I beg you, go see this great movie, directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (his first major Hollywood film). Yes, it’s a dark piece of cinema. It’s not going to have you leaving the theatre with a smile on your face, but this is crime drama at its best. Just look at that cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano. A cast filled with Oscar winners and nominees can’t be wrong.
The film wastes no time in setting up its premise. In the first scene, we see Keller Dover (Jackman) hunting with his teenage son, and on the drive home, he tells his son that you need to be prepared for anything (floods, fires, power outages, natural disasters), and Dover practices what he preaches. His basement is filled with survival gear for any disaster possible. It’s an interesting idea to set up that has major effect once the premise is established.
The Dover family head over to the Birch’s house, their neighbours, for Thanksgiving dinner. The Dovers’ young daughter and the Birch’s young daughter sneak out of the house, and once everyone realizes they aren’t there, panic quickly sets in. The girls are gone. The teenage son noticed a motorhome on the street earlier that’s now gone, so the search begins. Police get involved, and the driver of that motorhome, Alex (Paul Dano), is brought into custody, but the girls are nowhere to be found.
With no evidence, the police eventually have to let Alex go, against Keller and his wife, Grace’s (Maria Bello), pleads. Keller attacks Alex in the police parking lot where Alex whispers to him “they stopped crying when I left them”. No one believes Keller that Alex said these words, and so he has to take matters into his own hands. The interesting thing is that the audience hears what Alex says to Keller. If we hadn’t heard those words, we would be as skeptical of Keller as everyone else in the film. By hearing it, the audience is much more willing to go along with crazy journey that the film’s protagonist is going to take us on.
That’s just the initial setup of the plot. The trailer reveals more, but I won’t get into that.
Characters start making decisions that are questionable, but always believable. The script is superbly written that it pulls you right along with the characters as they make these hard choices. I wouldn’t necessarily say there are a ton of twists to the film. I guessed the big reveal of the third act as soon as a certain character as introduced, but that doesn’t mean I was sure of my prediction. There’s a lot of elements introduced in Prisoners and the joy is watching these pieces start to come together and trying to figure it out yourself.
Hugh Jackman gives another stellar performance as a blue collar guy who thinks he’s a superhero when it comes to protecting his family. It’s ironic casting given Jackman’s history, but watching him play this guy who has to suddenly deal with a scenario he didn’t prepare for is fascinating. Jackman pours his heart and soul into this performance and it’s heartbreaking. After finally scoring his first Oscar nomination last year for Les Miserables, he might be back in the race again with this. As the detective on the case, Gyllenhaal doesn’t get the depth of character that Jackman gets, yet he seems to have created a whole backstory of Detective Loki that the film never dives into. It makes him compelling to watch as there’s a lot more going on with him than what we are seeing.
Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo all have smaller but absolutely vital roles. Bello is heartwrenching as the mother trying to deal with the loss of a child, while Howard and Davis play the parents of the other missing girl who have to make some very hard choices. Leo has a great time disappearing into another role, this time being a long grey haired, frail, blue collar widow who lives in a rural area.
Look for Jackman, Leo, Villeneuve and the script to be tossed around as possible Oscar nom contenders.
Prisoners challenges you with a story that has so many interesting elements, and leaves you with an ending that’ll stay with you for a long time. This is storytelling at its best.