Prisoners (2013) – Pushed to breaking point

This film has one of those immediately intriguing premises thanks to its emotionally harrowing and thought-provoking nature. Two young girls go missing during a Thanksgiving celebration, and in the search for them, their families, and the detective assigned to the case, are pushed past the boundaries of their own morality. It is a devastating thing to even think about, which is exactly what the film encourages you to do. Following up his solid debut, 2012’s Contraband, writer Aaron Guzikowski uses the events to examine the varying paths this kind of trauma sends people down. Perhaps he and Canadian director Denis Villeneuve don’t push as far as they could, in terms of utilising the psychological material available, but they have done a damn good job creating an exciting and upsetting tale, backed by a stellar cast.

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One of the main players, Hugh Jackman, gives the performance everyone was talking about as Keller Dover, the father of one of the abducted girls, and he is totally believable in his paternal rage. Shouldering the other half of the film’s load is Jake Gyllenhaal who is interesting, quirky even, as the mysterious loner Detective Loki. On the other side, Paul Dano as mentally-challenged suspect Alex is strangely frightening without saying or doing much of anything – we don’t know whether to pity him or fear him. “Smaller” parts, including Coyote Ugly‘s Maria Bello as Mrs Dover, as well as the parents of the other missing girl, The Butler‘s Terrence Howard and How to Get Away With Murder‘s Viola Davis, are given weight by their impressive performances. What I did find hard to swallow, however, was the way the shady characters in the film are all ugly. Sure, there are conventions to uphold, but it seems a little over the top and almost offensive, considering their mental states.

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While the actors do a little heavy lifting here and there, the story pretty is high quality in its own right. The banal suburban lifestyle prior to the children’s disappearance quickly descends into chaos as the focus turns to the mental states of individual characters. The underlying question of who did it, and why, keeps things tense over the film’s two-hour-plus running time. There are enough hints drip fed along the way, so that we are not totally surprised by the truth, but the reveal is still thrilling. Then there are other times where Guzikoswski throws in sort-of red herrings to confuse and obscure. This tactic works to keep you thinking after the credits roll, as background pieces come together with varying levels of explanation.

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The look and feel of the film is great too. The sleepy, winter setting provides plenty of grey skies and bitter cold to enhance the dark psychological themes, and the emptiness of the town helps keep the focus on the main characters. The film is deftly shot by experienced cinematographer Roger Deakins, The Shawshank Redemption, and lighting is made a particularly effective feature in some scenes – with very black patches punctuated by bright lights. Jóhann Jóhannsson, The Theory of Everything, provides a foreboding, strings-heavy score which proves to be yet another valuable resource for the production in creating the dark tone and heightening the drama.

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A sum of its impressive parts, Prisoners will give you a bit of an emotional run around, and keep you invested until the end. The performances are all of a pretty high standard, and this allows the character-driven narrative to achieve its intentions. The tension is high throughout, and some parts are confronting, yet the most interesting moments involve the characters’ reactions to their situations. Some crack. Some freeze. While the script hits these marks, I wanted to be more shocked, to discover more of the trauma at play. There are some ripe ethical dilemmas here, and perhaps some picked a little early, as a result the film doesn’t quite have the impact of, say, 2007’s Gone Baby Gone. Despite that complaint, Prisoners shows off a well developed narrative world populated by realistically emotional characters, whom it is a painful delight to watch.

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