"Prisoners" (2013)

Prisoners (2013)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Running time: 153 minutes

I must say, I REALLY love going into a film having almost no knowledge of what I am about to watch. There is a strange thrill that I get when watching a film when I don’t have any thoughts as to when “that moment I saw in the trailer” is going to happen, or when the initial conflict will occur etc. There was a film I saw about ten years ago called Matchstick Men, and I had literally heard nothing about it in the lead up to watching it. The result was a fantastic mystery film that I was completely enthralled by, with no preconceptions to influence my experience in the cinema. I feel I can say that had I known what the film was about prior to watching it, I would not have enjoyed it as much as the complete mysteriousness of it was the best thing about it! It is a moment in my cinema going history that is very special for me, as these viewings are so SO rare in this day and age of internet trailers and cinematic journalism. It also makes me a huge hypocrite, as I am among the many people who like to read and write about films and to do so without stating a single thing about the particular film is basically impossible. The bottom line, I suppose, is that any of you who are willing to take a chance on a random film should go check out this week’s film Prisoners (and Matchstick Men while you’re at it!) as I would recommend it. But for those of you who would like a little more reassurance as to what you’re walking into, please read on!

Now Showing this week is Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve. Please don’t panic, I’m going to stop my premise synopsis before anything too revealing comes to light. One dreary Thanksgiving, Keller Dover’s (Hugh Jackman) six year old daughter and the daughter of his best friend go missing after going outside to play. The only lead they can give to head investigator Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is that there was an RV parked on the street that has not been seen since the girls disappeared. Police locate an RV matching the description fairly quickly, and the only suspect apprehended is Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a twenty-something man with the IQ of a ten year old. With no way of properly interrogating the suspect due to his disability, Detective Loki must release him and pursue other leads. But Dover is convinced that Jones is somehow involved and decides to take matters into his own hands…

The more astute of readers will have noticed that I did indeed recommend Prisoners in my opening paragraph. I would now like to add a little side note to that recommendation: if you’ve had a bad day, or are just having a rough time of it in your life generally, do not go watch Prisoners! The film weighs incredibly heavy on the soul and is completely humourless. It is harsh, it is brutal and it is crushing in its portrayal of a father’s desperation to rescue his little girl from whatever horror the world is exposing her to. This is not a criticism of the film, in fact I would phrase it as a commendation! While I couldn’t watch one everyday, bleak and heavy films like Prisoners or The Road are such compelling experiences due to the ways in which they tap into the raw emotions and complexities of the human condition. They challenge our perceptions of right and wrong, of what truly matters in life and of who we really are when our perfect worlds are shattered.

It is this tone that is perfect for a film like Prisoners and what makes it truly different to the film it has been compared to which is Liam Neeson’s Taken. While Taken dealt with similar subject matter (a daughter disappearing, her father going to horrible lengths to track her down), the fact that Neeson’s character was an ex-CIA special ops agent who was constantly dealing action movie style beat-downs on his aggressors and engaging in crazy car chases really took the edge off the real reality of the situation. Taken became an enjoyable frat-boy “action hero” movie, which is exactly what Prisoners is not. Jackman’s Dover is not a soldier, he’s a builder and a catholic. While some of his actions in the film are violent and torturous like Neeson’s, he is never chasing bad guys through apartment complexes and engaging in shootouts. And while pre-daughter disappearance Dover is certainly no cowardly wimp, he is definitely not a trained killer. To see how this tragedy pulls him down into the muck to get his hands dirty is truly heartbreaking and mortifying. I personally found Jackman to be very compelling in Prisoners, it was fascinating to see his aggressive side coming from a man who isn’t an adamantium enhanced super-human!

On the subject of the acting, Jake Gyllenhaal deserves an honourable mention. While nothing to rave about, his world weary portrayal of Detective Loki made for an excellent parallel to Jackman’s Dover. Where Dover is fueled by rage and vengeance, Loki is driven by the desire to save an innocent from the cruel world he has to deal with every day. Yes it is a bit cliche, but Gyllenhaal owns the role and makes for an excellent secondary protagonist. But the big shout out I would like to give would be to Paul Dano as the disabled Alex Jones. I’ve been really enjoying seeing Dano pop up in a variety of different roles in recent years, from the geeky weirdo ten years ago in The Girl Next Door, the mysterious homeless patient in House, a paranoid Looper in Looper and now to this harrowing husk of a man in Prisoners. Suffice to say, the guy has range! The highlight of Dano’s performance as Alex Jones is just how well he played the role in terms of realism, yet was still able to manipulate the part to lead the audience to feel Dover’s frustration with his inability to understand.

Or does he understand? Well, that would be telling. If there is one thing I loved about Prisoners, it’s that it kept me guessing up to the end…

Speaking of “up to the end”, the only major criticism I would have for the film is that it was far too long. Clocking in at around two and a half hours, when you couple it with pre-movie trailers and ads, you’re in for a solid three hour trip to the movies. And to endure such dark material for that length of time is taxing. Don’t get me wrong, I was never bored during the long run time, but it was just very exhausting by the end. There are a lot of red herrings that they squeeze into the film, and I wouldn’t remove any of them, but the script surrounding them just needed to be a bit punchier. Points of dialogue fell a little flat, moments dragged on occasionally and when you add them all up I reckon you could shrink about twenty minutes off the film. I suppose this isn’t a huge issue as the film was still great regardless, but I feel we need to encourage filmmakers to not just let their films run for a long time without good reason.

Then again, I can’t talk as this has been quite a long review! Time to wrap up. Prisoners was quite the experience, a brutal, harrowing but above all compelling tale of a father being confronted by the many lines he must cross to find his daughter. The acting was good, script pretty good aside from some dragging moments, and visually the film looked excellent. Some great cinematography choices, and they were integral to nailing the bleak tone of the film. If you feel you aren’t one depressing story away from a mental break down, then I recommend you check it out! But if you aren’t in the best place right now, maybe wait for DVD, sort yourself out first.

See you next time!


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