Avoiding spoilers completely, but dealing with the elephant in the room; no one should miss out on seeing Prisoners – largely because of that ending.
The film broadly concerns our personal judgements; those societal, lawful and those based on belief. It’s gripping from start to finish, and the ambiguity of the final judgement skilfully highlights the colourful themes peppering this effective, bleak, thriller.
Prisoners is set in a rural Pennsylvanian town, untouched by any sense of pop-culture or technological overexposure (barely a mobile phone, computer or console is given screen time) it’s an initially dreamy sense to proceedings that absorbs and unsettles in equal measure, also reminding us how overexposed we are as cinemagoers to by-the-numbers superhero and action movies.
The quietness of the opening scene – as Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a local struggling carpenter, teaches his son how to hunt deer with a rifle in the nearby national park – is palpable. There is a light flutter of sleet and the breeze drifts along in each extended cut ensuring, like the rest of the film, plenty of time to absorb each moment. The world carries on without us until the crack of the rifle extinguishes the life of the stunning animal grazing just moments before in his habitat. It’s a truly beautiful, yet horrific moment, evoking memories of The Deer Hunter.
It’s a powerful metaphor for events to come, as Keller and his friends, the Birch family, are plucked from the comfortable sway of life when their daughters are seemingly abducted during Thanksgiving celebrations. A beaten up motor-home has been seen patrolling in the grey drizzle and soon enough Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case. Within a few hours the prime suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a mentally handicapped young loner, is discovered and arrested after a piece of unpredictably frightening erratic driving.
It’s here that Prisoners abandons the conventional fast pacing of a thriller, and begins to add sublime layers of powerful characterisation, mystery and human observation to proceedings. The obvious jeopardy – two young girls are missing, presumed possibly dead – is heightened and stretched to cracking point. Rather cleverly thrusting emotional heft as much on to the audience as the principle characters (the parents), the tension is far greater even for those uninterested in the subtleties of the diversions against the main storyline.
It’s these complex layers of self-motivation fuelling our overall judgments and intentions that Prisoners encapsulates marvellously. We all judge, we all decide in advance what the truth is; when we are right is it because we always were sure, or is it just coincidence? Keller has no reason to believe that Jones is not the criminal; nor will you. When he begins stalking the young man (a deliciously evil moment occurs with a furry companion) we commit entirely to his vigilante pathway. It’s almost relish that seeps from the frame as Keller ties up his nemesis in a dingy undecorated tenement.
Then that special calmness returns; suddenly it’s real and a human being is about to be graphically assaulted and tortured. He’s handicapped and cannot express himself, this is disgusting. Of course not; he’s super-intelligent and a narcissistic child-killing bastard, he deserves it. Lines are blurred and emotions run high…either way the hammer blows fall. The visceral violence will guarantee flinches aplenty.
Jackman excels as a father figure ready for anything the world can throw at his brood (his character is a religious survivalist with a basement stockpiled for the next apocalypse) and has pre-judged humanity as a passive enemy around him. He’s selecting who is safe, who is evil, with a confident methodology. Jackman conveys the internal implosion of an animal whose offspring have been stolen and an intellect and belief system in meltdown with frightening realism. The raw powers of his outbursts (frustrated, heartbroken, betrayed, and enraged) are a maelstrom of bioelectric energy and screen domination. Even those without children of their own will leave convinced that this was a very real melodrama for the currently unstoppable star.
As Detective Loki, Gyllenhaal brings his trademark lackadaisical panache and infects it with a deep compassion and disturbance at the situation the parents, and wider community, find them inside. His relationship with his Captain adds some needed spunk to the law enforcer who, for the most part, finds himself as impotent as everyone else in finding the two young girls.
One unfortunate element of the feature is the superficial involvement of the female parents in the overall proceedings. It seems impossible with the length running time (albeit one which whizzes by on the strength of the episodic nature of the first, second and final acts) but the feminine perspective on events is cut woefully short. This may be in order to heighten the perversion of a certain character’s point of view…but to delve more deeply here could destroy the experience of the film.
Twists soon become turns, leads become dead ends, and the plot coils like a serpent (there are a few of those here too, adding some old fashioned grossness) before a conclusive half-hour segment which leaves breathless gasps and the sinister realisation that this fictional plot line has probably played out hundreds of times, if not thousands, in our supposedly civilised reality.
Prisoners is a lucid dream, a nightmare played out on screen and a harsh, gritty examination of the human condition wrapped up inside a highly effective thriller with powerhouse performances from actors nearing the peaks of their careers (to date). This film lingers with you long after the credits have rolled you will need to look very carefully indeed to squeeze any more value out of cinema ticket this October.
This is an excellent piece of entertainment and filmmaking from director Denis Villeneuve and his accomplished cast and crew and should not be confined to niche status; see it.