"Pray for the best, prepare for the worst."
"Our Father who are in heaven..."
And so Prisoners opens with Ralph Dover (Dylan Minnette) training his gun sights on a grazing and blissfully unaware doe, his father Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) accompanying and guiding him for what may be Ralph's first kill, and reciting the Lord's Prayer.
Keller is the quintessential family man and protective father. He believes in always being prepared so he teaches his son how to hunt in the event that somehow in the remote future if food becomes scarce they will be able to survive. The family's basement, which doubles as Keller's workshop, is stocked full of bulk items as if preparing for a second Y2K.
Little time is spent defining the his relationship with his wife Grace (Maria Bello) although it later becomes clear that Keller is the strong family leader. He is also a devout man, cross around his neck, reciting prayers, tuning his radio in to sermons and eventually wrestling with a very dark side of himself.
The Dover family walk up the street to their close friends the Birches for a shared Thanksgiving dinner; the Dover's are bringing the meat: venison.
Anna and Joy, the two young daughters (6 and 7), go outside to play while watched over by Ralph and the Birches older daughter Eliza. A strange RV is parked on the street and Ralph seems to posses his dad's instinctual nature, urging the young girls not to play near or on it, bringing them back to the house. The parents socialize, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard in hipster glasses) pulling out a trumpet to play a very rusty "Star of Spangled Banner", holiday cheer abounding, until the unthinkable happens--the girls disappear.
It's every parents nightmare: losing a child to the unknown. Have they been taken? Did they run away? Are they hurt somewhere, unable to get help? The Pennsylvania forest closes in as evening falls and a beautiful aerial shot shows family, friends and police officers fanning out through the trees with flashlights, searching desperately to find the girls within the first 24 hours, before the odds begin decreasing.
Detective Loki (enter Jake Gyllenhaal) is eating his Thanksgiving dinner at a local Chinese restaurant when he receives a call: an RV matching the description of the one idling outside the Birches has been spotted at a nearby gas station/truck stop.
Arriving at the site he find the driver non-compliant and a skirmish ensues which makes the viewer all too aware of the tense and potentially dangerous situations law enforcers frequently find themselves in. The driver Alex Jones (Paul Dano) is a creepy looking man who is treated as a suspect and Keller becomes convinced that Alex is somehow implicated in the disappearance of his daughter, even though the police clear and release him. This is where things begins to quickly spiral out of control.
(I can't help but keep reverting to the quote from Hoodwinked: We don't arrest people for being creepy.)
Grace Dover begins (quite understandably) medicating herself and remains in a perpetual stupor. The Birches, however, aren't so withdrawn. They find themselves implicated with Keller's plan to make Alex talk, despite Franklin's insistence that what they're doing is wrong. It's not too surprising that Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) supports Keller's plan with a quiet resolve to get her daughter back no matter the cost.
Detective Loki insists that Alex has the IQ of a ten-year-old to which Keller sarcastically responds, "Then how is he allowed to drive?". (Gyllenhaal's response "It's a Pennsylvanian license" isn't exactly enlightening. What gives, America? Am I missing out on an inside joke???)
Prisoners offers up the viewer some very serious and thought provoking material. The interaction between agitated and overwrought Keller (Jackman in TOP form) and calm yet twitchy Loki gives the viewer a good look at the dynamics between disconsolate emotional parents and cool collected police officers. The officer's attempt to remain unruffled and logical presents itself (at times) as placid passivity. Keller's dogged demands for action ("Arrest him, he's guilty!) are met with Loki's obnoxiously stoic and repetitive go-to phrases: "Listen, listen, listen, listen" and "Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, hey". To emotionally fraught and suffering family members, staff who reiterate the same word and message over and over and OVER again like a robot are extremely infuriating.
What came to mind was: maybe family members should just be allowed ot vent all their thoughts, hopes, fears and fury to a paid staff member who can just sit and LISTEN.
There are so many lessons to be learned--
1. No matter how hard or thoroughly you prepare, you will not be ready for some things life throws at you.
2. There is an untapped aspect of every single person which surfaces when under pressure.
3. Don't jump to conclusions. The age old adage "Don't judge a book by it's cover" isn't to be taken lightly.
4. Telling people how to do their job is as annoying as constantly being ignored or talked over.
I could examine the several moral lessons that this movie is attempting to convey, but not without spoiling it for possible future viewers.
Technically, Prisoners does not disappoint. This is the first "big American" movie for Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve (pictured above on the right) and what a brilliant piece it is. The gloomy music heightens nerves, the silence between scenes even more so The cinematography isn't stunning, because the scenery isn't too exciting--it's Pennsylvania, not the Alps. Small scenes though, such as a candle light vigil outside the Birches house, is framed in intimate close ups. Villeneuve does a beautiful job of capturing the private moments.
However quiet some shots are, scenes of Loki scouting from room to room alone in an abandoned house leave you on the edge of your seat--the tension is so palpable in a variety of different moments.
Hugh Jackman soars in his role as Keller Dover. He fervently swears, prays, perspires, cries and crackles with intensity without becoming kitschy or overly dramatic. As much as I loved his performance in Les Miserables, it felt exactly like that: a performance. (OMG look at how SKINNY Jackman is!!!). Contrastingly in Prisoners I felt that Jackman tapped deeper into his essence, being A) a father and B) having been raised with a devout parent.
(You can read about Hugh Jackman's relationship with his father in an interview with Good Housekeeping).
During punching and screaming scenes there was no "Look at that Hugh being all cray-cray!", but rather "Look at that father, look at that man at the end of his rope". I cannot praise his performance enough. He is a BAMF and he carries this movie.
Terrence Howard is solid, but Viola Davis as his wife and mother to Joy is tacitly piercing as she begs for her little girl back. Maria Bello has a relatively smaller role due to her being practically comatose half the movie.
As Detective Loki (and the light to Jackman's dark), Gyllenhaal offers a very honest image of an officer's work. Stuck with no leads? Strike out randomly and hope you hit lucky. As the plot moves toward a climax, Loki becomes more erratic due to the pressure, his eyes blinking in an irrepressible stress twitch. He has family members screaming at him that he is inept, while expecting him to find their babies.
Gyllenhaal does an amazing job. He has great on screen chemistry with Jackman and the frustration that he feels over running into dead ends is very palpable. I found myself rooting for him...he has solved every case so far! He HAS to solve this one!
Pieces fall together and the movie morphs from drama into drama-mystery. Universal "aha's!" and light bulbs flicker on almost at the every end, the screen abruptly fading to black.
Rated 14A, there are quite a few much deserved "fucks" along with some violent scenes. Considering that the nature of the movie is vigilante justice, the "torturing" was not as gruesome as I anticipated.
Stellar acting, an intricate and finely woven plot, mood music, likable characters, strong acting performances...the only question I had at the end was: How on earth do they find and cast people as the "creepy guys"? Thoughts?
9/10 for this impassioned, disturbing, thought provoking and incredibly intense movie. Taste Hugh Jackman's sad. (HINT: It tastes like his happy.)