It was way back in May that I first talked about Prisoners with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. At that time I posted the trailer and asked if it was just me, or did the thing give away too much of the movie? As it turns out, it was just me and no, while the trailer might have led us (notice how I’m now including others) to believe that we could figure out where director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski have gone, believe me when I tell you that it only took us about a quarter of the way. So first, let me just admit that I was wrong; happily, thankfully wrong, and then say, “Well done, sirs!”.
Prisoners, is not an easy film to watch. It’s a spellbinding and morally complex thriller with an unquestionably career-best performance from Hugh Jackman. It’s also the harsh and often brutal story of two Pennsylvania families as they suffer the soul-rending experience of a parent’s worst nightmare after their daughters are both kidnapped. It’s dark, twisted, and harrowing . What starts with a bucolic image of father and son on a hunting expedition, builds and builds and builds (with help from the great cinematographer Roger Deakins and his steely gray/blue color palette and Johan Johannsson’s haunting score) until the tension becomes, at times, almost unbearable.
The film turns “been there, done that, seen it before” tropes and stereotypes on their heads, though, starting with the fact that Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover and Terrence Howard’s Franklin Birch are so effortlessly friends. They spend holidays together (the movie begins at Thanksgiving). Their wives are friends, their children are friends, including the two older teenagers. Why this is worth noting is not just the obvious, but that the Birches are the more affluent of the two. Howard is white collar with a bigger, nicer house, nicer car etc. Keller is a carpenter. Blue-collar, whose family has probably been in the same area of rural Pennsylvania for generations; a man of faith who still teaches his son to “be ready” for anything. All things considered (and especially when we find out what he’s storing in his basement), in another movie we would expect Dover and Birch to be at odds. It is but one deftly avoided cliché.
Another is that suspect number one, Alex (an amazingly creepy Paul Dano), lives with his aunt (Melissa Leo) in the kind of run-down, single-story, cookie-cutter aluminum sided example of depressed suburbia where all serial killers, pedophiles and drug dealers tend to reside, at least in the movies. But Villenueve, and Gruzikowski’s script, let us know that not only are they aware of these things, they let us know that it’s okay if we’re aware of them, because they’re just the tip of the iceberg. We know from the trailer that the police are forced to let Alex go, at which point Keller, who is as sure as we are that Alex is guilty, takes matters into his own hands, abducting the suspect and chaining him up. Again, we know this from the trailer. But if we think we’re in for another tired, trite and banal story of vigilante justice, we are wrong. This is only the beginning.
We first see Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki watching the rain come down in sheets against the window of a Chinese restaurant (more like a diner). Despite the bright fluorescent lighting, the rain closes in the space, making it feel very forlorn. He’s spending Thanksgiving alone, flirting with the waitress, and on call, ready to respond to his radio. Loki is a study in contrasts. We are told that he has never failed to solve a case, which lets him get away with insulting his superiors. Despite his wide blue eyes, Loki’s face is closed, like the top button on his shirts, the collars of which don’t entirely cover what look like gang tatts. He’s so solemn that when he does smile, we’re instantly on our guard and expecting him to explode in barely-contained rage.
But Hugh Jackman is the heart of this movie. Keller Dover is always at the epicenter despite the puzzles and twists and turns that Guzikowski’s brilliant script has laid out for us. More suspects crop up and seem to fall away while Jackman’s character comes apart at the seams, his family in shreds. Meanwhile Loki , who has become single-mindly obsessed with the case is in a similar state, but manages to internalize his damage.
Every single character is absolutely vivid and multi-dimensional. We are given details that define them, allow us glimpses into their lives, but do not define their actions and vice versa. Villeneuve maintains a delicate balance between holding the audience in a death grip and yet still manages to allow the film to take its time without rushing through scenes another director might decide were unnecessary. I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything superfluous that does make it on screen. I don’t think there was a single aspect that was simply for “shock value” either, (although there was a scene that I wish I’d known about going in. Anyone who knows me and has seen the film, knows to what I refer).
The acting is, as you would expect from a cast like this, stellar. Despite very limited screen time, Maria Bello and Viola Davis both give us indelible portraits of the various stages of a mother’s desperation and grief.
One of Gyllenhaal’s greatest strengths as an actor is that he is continuously underrated so that he’s still capable of astonishing us. If you ‘ve seen David Fincher’s Zodiac, you’ll understand what I mean when I say that it’s as though Gyllenhaal is almost giving us the flipside of the detective he played in that film. Loki is almost Robert Graysmith several years on, his eagerness beaten down by time and circumstance into Loki’s haunted dread.
The final reel belongs to Melissa Leo, who despite being given a role front-loaded with opportunities to chew up and spit out the scenery, instead takes things down so far and so quiet that we have to pay attention and hang on her every word while our empathy slowly turns to horror and disgust.
Still and all, it is Jackman that will be remembered come awards season. His Keller Dover is an earthy, rugged “every man”; a true believer gut-punched into questioning his beliefs and pushed to the edge of hopelessness. It has been suggested that he should now hang up his adamantium claws and mutton-chop whiskers lest he be typecast; that he shouldn’t have to toil in the land of the comic book heroes any longer because now the world will see his “range”. I submit that not only has it been there all along (one has only to look at his CV on imdb), even if, like so many other actors, he is the best thing about a questionable movie, but that part of his appeal is that he can do a movie like Prisoners as well as Real Steel or The Wolverine or even voice a character in an animated film like Flushed Away. But beyond that, I don’t see anything wrong with making a movie, provided it’s done well, purely for the sake of entertainment. I enjoyed Australia (even if it didn’t quite reach the heights of the classic Hollywood romances like Casablanca to which it aspired) and I liked The Fountain and The Prestige and Deception as well. (Oddly enough, the one role I can honestly say I wasn’t entirely thrilled with, is the one for which he received his first ever Oscar nomination, that of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables. I know I’m out on a limb with that opinion.) Frankly, I think Hugh Jackman is one of those actors, nay those people, that are so appealing that we’ll buy them in anything. (The only comparison I can think of is Tom Cruise and before you tell me I’m nuts, you have to remember that whatever we think about him here at home, he’s still the biggest movie star in the world.) I submit that Jackman won us over during that song and dance during the Oscars in ’02 and he hasn’t looked back. Not to mention, with X-Men: Days of Future Past, he will have played Logan/the Wolverine in 7 films and produced the two stand-alones. I think he’s okay with it.
The best thing about this film, in my humble opinion is its restraint. In the pacing certainly, in the acting definitely, but most of all, despite the fact that we and the characters involved are faced with the weighty issues of morality, justice, right and wrong, we aren’t ever taken by the hand and led to an “obvious” conclusion. What might have, in less gifted hands, been nothing more than the best, most brutal “procedural” ever, becomes something more. Avoiding cliché and focusing on the drama, Villanueve allows us to absorb everything and draw our own conclusions and that applies to both the joyous moments and the horrific ones. We are spoon fed nothing. To my mind, the ending, the final shot, was perfectly spot on. (Some members of the audience I saw it with disagreed. Especially the man who yelled “Seriously?” at the screen.)
Prisoners with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Len Cariou, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, and David Dastmalchian, directed by Denis Villanueve from a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski has been embraced by audiences in the US (succeeding not only due to word of mouth, but to a large extent due to Jackman’s appeal) and just opened in the UK. It is a two-and-a-half hour slow-burn that probably won’t lose anything in the translation to home viewing, but it’ an intelligent “adult” movie, the likes of which are few and far between. So go to the theater and support it. Prisoners is at times difficult to watch, but watch it you must.
So, have you seen it? Do you agree? Disagree? Anything? Bueller…. Feel free to sound off below.