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.
by Steve Habrat
After last year’s buddy cop debacle Cop Out, pudgy funny-man director Kevin Smith needed a hit. Cop Out boasted Bruce Willis and Tracy Morgan, both who are able to draw a fairly large crowd to fill seats in the local theater, and ended up tanking and being largely forgotten soon after it’s release. Rather than enlisting more big actors and trying to make another blockbuster comedy, Smith scales back with Red State, a new horror/thriller that you, the viewer, will feel in the morning, long after you have seen it. Yes, this is the same guy who made Clerks, Dogma, Jersey Girl, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Red State is a hell of a departure from Smith’s other projects, but it also turns out to be one of his best movies, certainly scaring the hell out of you. With Dogma, Smith made clear he has an interest in the subject of religion, and with Red State, he launches a full on assault on radically religious figures, ultra-conservatism, and strangely, masculinity. This film is also evocative of the stock footage of such events as Waco, Texas, where a sinister ultra-religious cult lead by David Koresh engaged in a deadly firefight with FBI officials in 1993. The film brushes against the topic of terrorism as well, pitting Red State in the real realm of horror. The monsters here could be living down the street from you.
Red State focuses on Middle America high school students Travis (Played by Michael Angarano), Jared (Played by Kyle Gallner) and Billy Ray (Played by Nicholas Braun), who plot to answer a sex invitation that Jared received in an online sex chat room. They pile into Travis’ car that very evening and set out to find the 39-year-old Sarah (Played by Oscar winner Melissa Leo), who promises the boys that they will get physical after they have a couple of beers. Turns out, the beers she provides the eager lads are spiked, drugging the teens. Jared soon awakens to find himself at the Five Points Church, which is lead by a radical preacher Abin Cooper (Played by Michael Parks), a fire-and-brimstone preacher who spews his message of hate against homosexuals. The church is also holding a homosexual man they lured in a through a gay chat room. They soon execute the poor man who has been saran wrapped to a cross. After he dies, the man is cut down and several of Cooper’s men dump his body into a cellar where we discover Travis and Billy Ray are bound together. The boys come to the realization that Cooper aims to execute them for their devilish lust. After a string of mishaps and the discovery of military grade weaponry, the local Sheriff Wynan (Played by Stephen Root) enlists the help of ATF Agent Joseph Keenan (Played by John Goodman) to set up a raid on Cooper’s church compound. As the standoff between the agents and Cooper’s congregation escalates and Keenan’s peaceful negotiations fail, the boys are caught with Sarah’s virgin daughter Cheyenne (Played by Kerry Bisché) in the middle of the conflict. Cheyenne begs the boys to help them hide the younger children, who are also hidden in the compound.
Red State does not mince words and it certainly is not cunning about its attacks. It goes right for the throat and I say good for Smith for following through. He makes us absolutely loath the members of the Five Points Church, making me cheer every time an ATF agent picked off one of the gun-toting psychos. This leads to my recognition of the way Smith mounts tension within the film and his expertise in shooting action sequences. He turns a chase scene through the compound into a ferocious and erratic kick to the head. You will be swallowed up by desperation. He can also stage a gunfight, avoiding confusion that some filmmakers fall victim to when they stage a gunfight. Praise should also go to the excellent editing, which is frantic but clear. This is where the film benefits from its smaller budget, as I can’t imagine this film was made for a huge sum of cash.
Smith enlists a handful of smaller actors along with some veterans, all who shine through the buckets of blood, gore, and gun smoke. Melissa Leo plays a horrifically loyal daughter to the heinous Cooper. While sniping ATF agents, he glances over at his machine gun wielding daughter and asks her if she will get him a glass of sweet tea. She proudly dashes off to quench his thirst. Leo excels at playing wicked and domineering, as she yanks and scolds her daughter Cheyenne for defying God. She does the phony hypnotic prayer, which all fanatical Christians in the south are so found of and she does it exceptionally well. Leo is all flaying arms to Christ, shouting “Praise Jesus” as Cooper fear mongers and promotes his message of destruction. Michael Parks is the embodiment of the devil as Cooper, who encourages his family members to march out and take the lives of innocent human beings. Goodman plays a good guy facing some serious moral dilemmas. Goodman conveys genuine horror over the events that play out right before his eyes and he is helpless to stop them. The three boys, Travis, Jared, and Billy Ray are all out to prove their masculinity and enter manhood. They take a backseat to Leo, Goodman, and Parks, but they still hold their own in the film.
Red State has many points to make on its agenda. It argues that under all of the fear mongering preaching made by radicals in Middle America (or anywhere in America, for that matter) has the underlying message of violence. Near the beginning of the film, Cooper’s congregation protests the funeral of a homosexual boy who was found dead in a dumpster behind a gay club. It asks if there is any decency in this world anymore. Would God approve of all this violence? He is supposed to be a peaceful God after all. Red State asks questions about masculinity, particularly the drive in young men to prove themselves sexually. It makes points about ultra-conservatism, sometimes with the role of women within a family. The scene where Cooper asks his daughter to get him some sweet tea would spark some thoughtful conversation in a Women’s Study course. There were moments in the film that were evocative of the documentary Jesus Camp, where radical preacher Becky Fisher discusses the “army of God”. The members of Cooper’s congregation certainly see themselves that way, even if they are fictional creations. And what about the issues of freedom of sexuality? And what gives us the right as human beings to judge other human beings? Red State points out that violence is not the way to solve any of these issues, as the violence will consume the innocent caught in the middle.
The portrait that Smith paints with Red State is scary because it has happened before and we can be certain it will happen again. These are monsters that exist and walk among us brainwashing our children and spewing vitriol to anyone who will stop and listen. Red State is not for all, mostly because of its relentless violence. Yet Red State is articulate and should be seen by those who are open minded. I’d be curious to hear the opinions of those who devout themselves to any certain religion or situate themselves in conservative beliefs. Sitting on the sidelines here, I found the film to be a gut punch that is softened only by it’s silly turn at the end. Smith turns the last fifteen minutes of the film into a comedy routine where the characters spout off with dialogue that would be at home in any of his comedies I have listed above. It saves itself again in the final thirty seconds. For all the intellectuals out there, Red State scares with reality. For movie lovers, Red State is a must-see for a left of center project from Kevin Smith. For me, Red State has left me reeling, swirling with emotions. I’ve felt angry, dismayed, and broken by it. I also don’t view any of these emotions as negative towards the film itself. Praise Red State!
Red State is now available on Blu-ray, DVD, and in the Instant Queue on Netflix.