Prisoners (2013)

US / 153 minutes / color / Alcon, 8:38, Madhouse, Entertainment, Georgia Film Music & Digital Entertainment Office, Warner Bros. Dir: Denis Villeneuve Pr: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner Scr: Aaron Guzikowski Cine: Roger A. Deakins Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoë Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla-Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian, Victoria Staley.

A very long, very carefully paced movie, beautifully photographed (his work here brought Deakins one of his several Academy Award nominations), intelligently scripted and with an excellent ensemble performance including a firecracker turn from Gyllenhaal, Prisoners was Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language movie; it was followed promptly by his second, Enemy (2013), which also starred Gyllenhaal and which I’ve talked about elsewhere on this site.

Keller Dover (Jackman), his wife Grace (Bello) and their kids go for Thanksgiving dinner to the home of their neighbors and best friends, Franklin (Howard) and Nancy Birch (Davis) and their kids. During the afternoon, the two families’ youngest kids, Anna Dover (Gerasimovich) and Joy Birch (Simmons), disobey orders and wander out unsupervised. Within hours a search for them is on.

Hugh Jackman as Keller.

In charge of the case is Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), a relative newcomer to the area with a celebrated 100% clearup rate. Almost immediately there’s a suspect in custody: childlike Alex Jones (Dano), driver of an RV the two kids had earlier shown an interest in. Alex—not to be confused with the conspiracy theorist—is repeatedly said to have the intelligence of a child of 10, a slightly puzzling statement since, while 10-year-olds can sure do stupid things, there’s nothing wrong with their intelligence. Be that as it may, there’s no doubt Alex is what we traditionally called simple-minded.

There’s also very little doubt he’s innocent, and so the cops release him. This maddens Keller, who abducts him, secretes him in the abandoned home of his late grandfather, and commences, with the reluctant assistance of Franklin, to torture him brutally for information about the location of the two missing girls.

Paul Dano as Alex (left) and Jake Gyllenhaal as Loki.

Meanwhile Loki’s trying to find the kids and catch their abductor, a task constantly hampered by the disappearance now of Alex and the fact that Keller is acting so damned oddly that Loki has to waste time trying to work out what he’s up to. Even so, Loki manages to bring in another suspect, this time a far more plausible one, creepy Bob Taylor (Dastmalchian), who soon confesses. Only . . .

Oddly, the blurb on the DVD I have of this movie makes out that Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, is the hero of the piece: “[A] frantic Dover, knowing his child’s life is at stake, decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands”—that sort of stuff. What seems to me the point of the movie, however, is that Keller is as much a villain, as much a psycho, as any of the other malefactors on display.

Viola Davis as Nancy.

Through his stupidity-driven obstinacy, Keller inflicts torments upon a psychologically damaged individual long after it’s become obvious the sadism is pointless (and despite Franklin having implored him at the outset to abandon the scheme on the well established grounds that all torture’s likely to produce is false information), and also, as noted, his efforts actually hinder the investigation. We see him as someone in complete denial of reality: even though he realizes his victim is an innocent he carries on anyway, because at least he’s doing something—and, besides, it’s all the victim’s fault for making Keller torture him.

Terrence Howard as Franklin.

This obliviousness to reality extends eventually to Grace, too, who in a late moment in the movie explains to Loki how great it was that Keller was trying everything he knew to help find Anna.

So vigilante Keller sees himself as the hero of the piece, but the movie seems to be telling us very firmly not to buy into that bullshit. It’s a pity the copywriter for the DVD did; more likely, the people at Warner thought there was a bigger market for a movie lauding the apparent triumph of a maverick asshole than there was for a thoughtful, intelligent piece dissecting that atavistic worldview.

Maria Bello as Grace.

Melissa Leo as Holly.

A couple of supporting performances seem to me worth noting. Melissa Leo is quite mesmerizing as Alex’s widowed adoptive mother Holly Jones, and Dylan Minnette splendidly depicts the Dovers’ elder child, teenager Ralph, trying to be cool when he just . . . isn’t, trying to cope with crazy circumstances and a pair of parents who’re careening off the rails.

Dylan Minnette as Ralph and Zoë Soul as Eliza.

David Dastmalchian as Bob Taylor.

But Gyllenhaal gives us the star turn. Until watching these two Villeneuve movies—Enemy and now Prisoners—I confess I’d more or less written of Gyllenhaal as an actor. In the few early movies of his I’d seen he seemed to be little more than a pretty face. Somewhere along the line, though, he’s developed into a first-rate actor, or perhaps it’s just that Villeneuve insists on the best from him. Whatever the truth of the matter, he’s in terrific form here—better even than in Enemy—as the dedicated yet uncharismatic cop, dealing with idiots on all sides (not just Keller but Loki’s boss, Captain Richard O’Malley, played by Wayne Duvall), a man aware, unlike Keller, of his own fallibility yet recognizant that the awareness assists him. When Loki’s first introduced and we don’t know who he is or his place in the plot, it occurs to us momentarily that he might be not the detective but the abductor; one of the great strengths of the performance is that Gyllenhaal communicates so effectively that Loki doesn’t have to be likeable to be right.

Despite the credited involvement of the Georgia Film Music & Digital Entertainment Office, the movie’s set in Pennsylvania.

7 thoughts on “Prisoners (2013)

  1. Great write-up of a very good film. Thanks for reminding me of its many subtleties. (I actually have a copy on DVD and may well give it another watch fairly soon.)

    If you’re keen to maintain the momentum with Jake Gyllenhaal, I would thoroughly recommend Zodiac and Nightcrawler – he is excellent in both!

    • Thanks for the recommendations, Jacqui! I was so put off by some of Gyllenhaal’s earlier work that it’s taken me a little while to reconcile myself to the fact that he improved after that. Still some way to go before he’s as good as his sister, of course . . .

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