Prisoners is Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first English language film, and the first he made following the critical success of 2010’s Incendies, which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. A twisty tale of child abduction and abuse that frequently switches the roles of some characters from victim to offender (and vice versa), it’s an emotionally-draining film that features some magnificent cinematography and some fine acting from the ensemble cast. Beware, there are plot spoilers below.
In an unidentified, rainy, blue-collar Pennsylvania town, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are settling down for Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbours, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terence Howard and Viola Davis). Both couples have two children and before the day is out the two youngest members of each family, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons), suddenly disappear. The case is subsequently handed to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), but his investigation is far from straightforward; the prime suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who was seen nearby in a suspicious vehicle prior to the abductions, has the IQ of a 10-year-old, according to his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). As Loki investigates further he discovers that several old cases of abduction and abuse in the town may be relevant, but the days pass too quickly for the frustrated Dover, who decides to take matters into his own hands.
Prisoners has much in common with two recent adaptations of Dennis Lehane novels. Ben Affleck’s highly underrated 1997 debut Gone Baby Gone also examined the short-term effects of child abduction on a community and its individual members, while Clint Eastwood’s earlier adaptation of Mystic River dealt to some extent with the long-term mental scars. Prisoners strikes something of a balance, initially appearing as though it will be concentrating on the fates of two clear victims before the story opens up considerably to show the effects of generations of abuse.
Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay repeatedly asks the viewer to re-think opinions about certain characters. At first Dano’s Jones appears to fit the bill of a guilty kidnapper or paedophile who has perhaps managed to outsmart the police, until the information surfaces about his mental age, which represents an early twist. Soon Jones is the victim of kidnap and torture himself, and in several scenes Jackman is intense as the desperate father who takes the law into his own hands. But the issue has become clouded now and it is difficult to apportion guilt: is Jones still culpable somehow? Are Dover’s actions just as bad? (He is effectively kidnapping someone with the mental age of his own abducted daughter, remember.) Meanwhile another man named Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian) steps into the vacated role of prime suspect, and despite mounting evidence against him, the viewer is less keen to jump to conclusions for a second time.
Trying to make sense of all of this is Detective Loki, whose name (perhaps obviously) suggests that we should be wary of trusting the character implicitly, and must surely be considered in relation to the film’s cliffhanger, in which he is perhaps weighing up his own 100% record of crime-solving against a more ruthless rough justice. After a childhood spent in care Loki has become a dedicated (read: obsessive) cop, yet Guzikowski’s story makes an interesting link between Keller Dover’s illegal interrogation of Jones and Loki’s ‘legal’ interrogation of Taylor; there is excessive violence against the suspects in both cases, yet arguably the results of one interrogation are far worse than the other. Should Loki be culpable for forcing Taylor into the drastic action that ends with the suspect’s suicide? He is barely reprimanded at all by his Captain, O’Malley (Wayne Duvall), and at times it is the detective who appears to be in charge at the police station. In Prisoners everyone who apparently does wrong is punished somehow, with the notable exception of Loki, who for me is the most interesting character here.
This is a fascinating moral quagmire to wade through, and the principal characters are interesting to follow as they become ever more frantic and their actions become ever more unpredictable. The story, while generally believable, creaks a little when Joy Birch escapes from captivity and says ‘you were there’ to Keller in front of an assortment of family members. If Keller has worked out who is responsible for his daughter’s abduction at this point why doesn’t he just tell the police instead of running away from them? It’s a shame that disbelief needs to be suspended as the film reaches its climax.
Prisoners sees Director of Photography Roger Deakins add to his magnificent portfolio with some superb cinematography. There are plenty of attention-grabbing shots – the approaching Loki reflected in the wing mirror of Jones’s vehicle being my personal favourite – but there is clearly a degree of care on every single frame, even the numerous establishing shots of houses and driveways; see this post for a fascinating, in-depth analysis. Throughout the film Deakins uses a drained palette of browns, greys and washed-out blues, reflecting the seasonal weather first and foremost but also key in establishing the downbeat mood. Little wonder the Coens collaborate with him so often, the man’s work should be cherished.
As you would expect in a film about kidnapping there are many enclosed, creepy spaces, barely illuminated but for the occasional shaft of light. Villeneuve uses these to great effect, repeatedly putting the viewer in the shoes of the victim (especially in the case of Jones, where any initial outrage at the idea that the character has ‘gotten away with it’ gives way gradually to sympathy for his plight as he is forced to endure torture in an unfinished bathroom and, later, an even smaller space: a sealed-off shower). Meanwhile the town’s exteriors become ever more abstract, with shape and form becoming more blurry as the film wears on. The town’s roads and buildings are often seen through rainy / dirty car windows and by the end, with Loki executing a mad dash to the town’s hospital with blood trickling into his eye, it’s difficult to make any of it out clearly.
Despite the presence of a neat cliffhanger the final, twist-laden 30 minutes tarnishes the film, as the decision to identify and deal with a clear and unequivocal villain of the piece is at odds with the rest of the story, which is otherwise ambiguous, thought-provoking and unhurried. It’s a shame, as Prisoners is a visually-stimulating work that is at its best when challenging the viewer’s own notions of right and wrong, and daring to show us the sides of some characters that other films would simply not explore; this is an element of the movie that is still present at the end, but somewhat secondary to the barely-believable direction the case takes.
It’s also unfortunate, to say the least, that the black family plays second fiddle to the white family here, given that both have children snatched away. To an extent this is because Jackman’s character is more important than Howard’s to the story, and as a result the Dovers get more screen-time, but it’s still noticeable, even if the Birches are not completely ignored. Overall, though, it’s worth seeing. Villeneuve has a talented bunch of actors on board, and he gets some good performances from them. Gyllenhaal is very good indeed, and although Jackman’s ire and frustration dominates a little at times, it certainly increases the dramatic tension and adds to the sense of time running out. Dano, too, does well. With these performances, the provocative story and Deakins’ excellent cinematography this has all the makings of a great thriller, but it just falls short due to a few flaws: it’s still a very good one though.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, Terence Howard, Viola Davis, David Dastmalchian
Running Time: 153 minutes