Monday, September 23, 2013

PRISONERS Is Gripping, Ultra-Intense Tale of Vengeance


- PRISONERS is a dark, twisty, enthralling thriller that, despite a long running time, kept me on the edge of my seat for its duration. Going in, I wasn't familiar with director Denis Villeneuve, but he makes an incredibly strong first impression - directing the film with old-school, stark simplicity and haunting, deliberate pacing. On the flip side, the movie is filled with top-notch actors, many doing some of the best work of their careers. This is Jake Gyllenhaal doing some of his best-yet acting. It's Hugh Jackman playing a force of nature, but a much different type of character than we're used to seeing from him. It's Melissa Leo ... well, I don't even want to say, except that she's good. Real good. Meanwhile, the film deals with some very interesting, thought-provoking, and complex themes. But if there's any major flaw here, it's that I'm not fully convinced that the movie's many interrelated themes, plot-threads, and overarching ideas come together in an impactful way. But even so, I can appreciate a potboiler that also gives you a lot of thematic meat to chew on.

The movie deals with the aftermath of a double-kidnapping. The two victims? Two little girls, friends who were gathered with their families for Thanksgiving dinner. The girls decide to sneak off, but their families panic when they're nowhere to be found. On one side of the coin is Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a gruff survivalist whose personal motto is to always be prepared for the worst. Keller reacts to the kidnapping by going into vigilante mode - distrustful of the police, and determined to solve the case on his own. His wife, Grace (Maria Bello) is absolutely torn up by the kidnapping. She spends her days in bed, on meds, a mess of tears and pain. On the other side is Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis). Franklin gets pulled into his friend's quest for vengeance, but reluctantly so. Franklin can see that Keller is losing it - his perspective and his moral compass - in his determination to find his daughter. This manifests in Keller's insistence that the truth lies with Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a mentally handicapped man whose RV was parked nearby the two couples' homes at the time of the abduction. Meanwhile, the cop tasked with solving the kidnapping is loner Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Loki finds himself with the unenviable task of tracking the girls and pursuing leads, all while keeping the increasingly unstable Keller in check.

Like I said, this is a fairly towering performance from Hugh Jackman. While there's still a residual hint of Wolverine-esque badassery in Keller, this is also a more grounded, blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth type of character than we typically see from the actor. When we first meet Keller, his grim, survivalist worldview is tempered by the love and stability of his family. But when that gets ripped away from him, the darker inclinations come to the forefront. And Jackman handles that transformation wonderfully, showing us a guy who is willing to compromise his own soul in exchange for saving that of his daughter. On the other end of the spectrum, this is one of those Jake Gyllenhaal roles where the actor gets to be at his quirkiest, which to me is a good thing. After all, this is the guy who first impressed by playing a total oddball in Donnie Darko. Here, his Detective Loki is sort of fascinating. He ponders things slowly, carefully, but then is prone to rage when things don't add up. But Loki makes for a great contrast with Keller. Loki is trying to weigh all the angles, juggle all the facts. Keller is single-minded and laser-focused.

Overall, the supporting cast is quite simply stacked. If anything, I think you end up wanting even more substantial parts of top-notch actors like Bello, Howard, and Davis. That said, the movie is overripe with plot, and there just isn't time to widen the focus too much to these peripheral characters.

The bigger problem might be theme. Writer Aaron Guzikowski and Villeneuve go big. They introduce questions about vengeance, faith, god, morality, and justice. They use Keller as an example of what can happen when one man's quest for vengeance overrides his own moral compass - creating a situation in which Keller nearly becomes the bad guy in his own story. They look at the cycle of violence, and how one evil act begets another. They give the kidnapping a religious connotation: the kidnappers wage a war against god, with the terrorist-like goal of destabilizing and breaking good men: of inspiring others to inadvertently join the crusade of evil by retaliating and repeating the perpetrator's sins. All of this is good stuff - and for a while, the movie captivates, as it dangles these big questions in front of us. But these big themes don't necessarily jive with the plot's twisty nature. With each new twist, we get thrown for a surprising loop, but the big themes of the film also, to a degree, are undermined. It's hard to talk too much about without spoiling things, except to say that as the credits roll, it feels like you've been left with a hodgepodge of half-finished ideas and themes that were only explored halfway.

Still, the plot alone makes for gripping drama, and the film builds suspense - and genuine mystery - in a way that's as effective as any crime thriller we've seen in a long while. Villeneuve - along with legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins - craft a gorgeous-looking film that gives its rural, every-town setting a palpable sense of dread and foreboding. The movie feels like a throwback in many ways, and I found it refreshing. The pacing, the cinematography, the way the movie takes its time and builds and builds and lets the atmosphere take hold - it definitely feels like a film not quite of this time (and maybe that's also the Euro-ness of it all) - which ironically gives it that sort of classic, timeless feel.

PRISONERS is a pretty fascinating film, and in all honesty it's a hard one to rate. There's so much to like here, and so much that feels atypical and applause-worthy for this sort of big-screen crime procedural. Rarely does a crime movie have this much on its mind. At the same time, it's slightly frustrating because Prisoners is just shy of being a classic, in that by its end, the movie sort of collapses under its own weight. There's a lot that doesn't quite add up, and what the movie is ultimately about, what it's ultimately saying, ends up feeling a bit lost and muddled. But the ride to get there - it's still well worth taking.

My Grade: B+

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