by Steve Habrat
Earlier this summer, news broke out of Cleveland that three girls who had been missing for over a decade had finally been found alive in a home belonging to Aerial Castro. This miraculous discover was a happy ending for the families who were forced to endure years of torment over whether their loved ones were alive or dead. With such chilling news reminding us that the most terrifying monsters of all could be living just next store to us, now is the perfect time for a film like director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Dealing directly with child abduction, Prisoners wastes no time getting under the viewer’s skin and striking an all-too-real chord that sucks the air right out of the theater. With its dreary atmosphere and lack of polish to keep the audience removed from the story, Prisoners becomes a riveting revenge thriller that sidesteps an exploitative side, a trap many well-known revenge thrillers have fall into. Then there is the powerhouse cast (Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo), a slew of Oscar nominees and winners who comprise the fractured center of this deeply disturbing piece of filmmaking.
Prisoners begins with Keller (played by Hugh Jackman) and Grace (played by Maria Bello) Dover and their two children, young Anna (played by Erin Gerasimovich) and teenage Ralph (played by Dylan Minnette), heading up the street to the home of Franklin (played by Terrence Howard) and Nancy (played by Viola Davis) Birch for Thanksgiving dinner. While the adults sip wine and visit, Anna and Ralph wander around the neighborhood with Joy (played by Kyla Drew Simmons) and Eliza (played by Zoe Borde). The kids soon stumble across a dingy RV that Joy and Anna proceed to start climbing on. After discovering that someone is inside, Ralph and Eliza lead the kids away before the owner can come out and yell at them. Later on, Anna and Joy head back out to the Dover’s so Anna can show Joy her safety whistle. After failing to return, the parents begin frantically searching the neighborhood. Unable to find the girls, the parents alert the police, who immediately put Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case. That evening, Loki discovers the RV that the girls were reportedly playing on. Inside the RV, Loki discovers Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano), who he immediately takes into police custody. After discovering that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old and there is no evidence of the girls having been in the RV, Loki releases Alex back with his aunt, Holly Jones (played by Melissa Leo). Enraged and convinced he is guilty, Keller takes the law into his own hands, kidnaps Alex, and begins torturing him in the hopes of finding the whereabouts of the missing girls.
While Prisoners presents itself as a revenge thriller, the film could also pass as a horror film—a horror of personality film to be exact. Early on, Villeneuve suggests that there is something ugly and horrible about to strike in suburbia. There are low rumblings on the soundtrack and he cuts to outside shots of the Birch home with an ugly gray tree cutting right through the center of their lovely home. Something is about to break up this happy family and leave them scarred forever. There is also no sunny comfort, as every exterior shot is filled with billowing snow, low roars of thunder, gray clouds, and sheets of rain smashing against homes and car windows. It’s about as atmospheric as a film can be. When the revenge aspect kicks in, the film doesn’t rely on copious amounts of blood and gore to shock (that isn’t to say the film is bloodless), but rather the heaving animalistic savagery that can erupt when one is consumed by unguided accusation. Villeneuve serves up several shots of rundown apartment hallways complimented by Jackman’s angry shouts and Dano’s terrified whimpers barely audible through the rotting drywall and wood. The yellowing walls and crumbling apartment building where much of the torture takes place mirrors the deterioration of the central character’s morals. The trust in the law is long gone and the only way to get answers is to viciously and relentlessly attack someone who may not even be guilty. Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski suggest that even through uncertainty, the drive to put a face on our pain and suffering can bring out the worst in us, even those who are claim to be men and women of God.
With the grim tone keeping us frozen in our seats, Villeneuve then allows the performances to emotionally drain us. Jackman completely disappears in the role of Keller, a bleary-eyed man of God who looks like he has been blasted by a wrecking ball. His anger erupts when Dano’s Alex is released in from police custody and when his wife sobs that he needs to protect his family, his revenge plot turns him into grizzled shell of a man who has to keep reminding both God and Alex that he doesn’t want to be unleashing the rage that he is. Howard’s Franklin is a timorous disaster who continuously suggests that torturing Alex is a grave mistake. Despite his protest, he aids in beating the man to a bloody pulp. Davis walks a fine line between objecting and approving of Keller’s approach to the horrific situation. She’s certainly distraught, but she demonstrates a bit more strength than Bello’s crumbling Grace. Piled under a mound of blankets, clutching tissues, and popping prescription meds, Grace finds solace in coma-like slumber. Dano is fragile yet dark as the bespectacled Alex, who enjoys yanking a dog up in the air and dangling it from a leash. Gyllenhaal is magnetic as the tattooed hard-boiled detective simultaneously trying to get to the bottom of the disappearances while unraveling something much bigger than he ever could have imagined. It’s even worse when his superior suggests that maybe he should let the case go. Melissa Leo rounds out the A-list cast as Holly Jones, Alex’s aging aunt with a broken past.
At a towering two and a half hours, Prisoners is surging with ripped-from-the-headlines realism that is never given a million-dollar sheen some films of this sort get. The film seems cold to the touch and the violence, when glimpsed, is absolutely stomach churning. People gasped when we caught a glimpse of Alex’s swollen and beaten-in face, the presentation of a torture device made out of a shower makes you groan in disgust, and a sudden suicide blasts both the characters and the audience across the face with a sledge hammer. Even the film’s child abduction subject matter is darker than the midnight hour and becomes a tough pill to swallow. The climax of the film threatens to become a bit ludicrous, but Guzikowski’s screenplay has every angle covered to make sure the events never plummet into implausibility. Overall, its tough to call if Prisoners will become a darling come awards time, but the film dares to explore humanity at its absolute worst. Not only that, but the performances, especially Jackman’s, demand to be seen and will not easily be forgotten. As an early fall movie season effort, Prisoners disturbs the viewer at the deepest levels imaginable.