Authenticity is something of a rare feat to accomplish in filmmaking, even when discussing something as palpably emotional as kidnapping and child murder. They’re dark themes that all of us see as unforgivable or pass that threshold of common reason because children are the ideals of innocence, something we, as adults, lose when we reach a certain age. Nolan is someone who's a master at this in the current realm of moviemaking, even making something like Batman feel noirish and hyper-realistic with the Chicagoan skyscrapers being his playground for vigilantism.
Denis Villeneuve is another master in the making, his recent work in “Blade Runner 2049” showcases that same innate ability to make something that doesn’t quite fit into our realm of realism and make it seem just that, make it seem possible. While “Blade Runner 2049” is more of a voyeur into human consciousness, “Prisoners” is studying our morality, both in the context of how religion shapes it, and how reality effects it. It’s Villeneuve's best feat to date because it's a tale that does what most won’t, it forces you into the abyss, and never apologizes for it.
We’d expect some shred of light to seep through, this is Hollywood after all, but Villeneuve blocks it out, forcing you to feel that ache of mournfulness and sorrow that modern-day filmmakers usually stray away from. Not that no other film is equally as sad and dour as this one, but few stay that way. They have some sweeping form of justice to remind us of the hope at the end of the tunnel, never the authenticity of life’s never-ending cruelties that can manifest from the worst of our fellow man.
The story is centered around two families, a kidnapping of two girls, and a hot-shot detective. It begins in winter, around a morning hour in which we listen to Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) recite the Lord's prayer before he watches his son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), shoot and kill his first deer. Afterward, we see them driving home, the dead deer riding in the bed of the truck, as Keller (Hugh Jackman) turns to his son and warns him of the dangers of not being prepared for life’s worst. Whether it be a storm, terrorist attack, or some apocalyptic act of God, you have to be prepared for the worst and pray for the best, a credo that Keller (Hugh Jackman) lives by.
From there, we see this man and the rest of his family walk to a friends house to have themselves a small get together, which we assume is a Thanksgiving dinner based on the decor. We watch these two little girls, one from each of the nuclear-formatted families; they remain close and ever-adventurous as all children are. At one point they drag their older siblings outside in the cold, getting in trouble for playing on a strangers RV that is not as abandoned as it seemed. Pleading to search for a whistle that one of them lost, they run out by their lonesomes to find it, ignoring the orders of the parents to bring their siblings along with them. The parents soon take notice of their disappearance, after searching, these girls have seemingly vanished, or been taken by someone.
In comes Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a perfect record detective with a nervous tick when his eyes wink. They wink with heaviness as if his life has been shaped by the long nights of investigating, or have they merely grown tired at looking at a world so heinous that he struggles to keep them open. He's responding to a vehicle that matches the identification given by the families, discovering a suspect within it who attempts to flee the scene. Alex (Paul Dano) is that suspect, he’s a kid, almost a man, and has the IQ of a ten-year-old boy.
It’s shocking that he finds himself behind the wheel of a vehicle, but Loki’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) intimate and invasive interrogation techniques work to no avail because of that lack of intelligence. In the end, he has to release him after the maximum 48 hour holding period, going against the wishes of Keller (Hugh Jackman) whose confusion matches ours. When he learns that the boy has been released, he bombards him in the parking lot, assaulting him and grabbing him, demanding answers.
Alex (Paul Dano), grasped by his collar, whispers “they didn’t cry until I left them,” sending Keller (Hugh Jackman) into a frenzy of anger. With further questioning from the Detective, it’s a his word versus my word kind of a case, something that Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can no longer waste time on as our case turns into something of a mystery. With dead bodies, multiple sex offenders, and critical suspects becoming involved, all forcing a Detective to look at all options and a father to do whatever he can to find his daughter.
The story, written by Aaron Guzikowski, is one filled with tension and constant dread, fabricating this earning for answers while simultaneously making us fear what might lie within those discoveries. He’s also placing religion under a microscope as something that can be as equally comforting as it is disturbing, forcing us to see it as something that can inspire madness and viciousness within a person as well as it can motivate for us to carry on when times are darkened and filled with grief.
The story also pits characters against each other, showcasing how responsibility can become a curse more than a blessing, and how grief changes us, like Keller (Hugh Jackman), a father who prepared for everything possible, but still failed to protect his daughter. Unable to provide the comfort or the emotional relief his family needs, he relies upon his actions. Doing unspeakable things, and resorting to a mentality of vengeance and unlawfulness, asking us how far we would go to save the ones we love?
Jackman screeches, hollers, cries and performs with vigor. He’s both physical and emotional in delivering his character’s depth, but it’s not the fuss that wins him over, it’s the authenticity. You believe him, which is the point of his performance, it’s believable. It carries that same sense of realism that Villeneuve injects onto the screen, that presence of authenticity.
The opposite father, Franklin (Terrence Howard), is a man pretending to be what he is not. Trying to help the friend he loves, to be the hero his daughter needs right now, but unable to break his moral code. He’s testing barriers that most of us hope never to face, forcing himself to be apart of something that adds more weight to the burden he carries as a father who blames himself for the loss of his daughter.
Both families carry this weight as well, whether it's the older siblings Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and Eliza (Zoe Soul), or the mothers Grace (Maria Bello) and Nancy (Viola Davis), they all carry this same weight of guilt. Blaming themselves for not doing what could have been done, it's heart-wrenching to watch, especially sense Villeneuve makes each day feel significant, instead of a mere matter of minutes passing on a silver screen. It feels as if each second is filled with an amount of time that lingers with grave importance, making us feel the weight of stress when they remind us the length it's been since the girls’ disappearance. All of the actors and actresses are tremendous in their displays of emotional torment, performing a balancing act in which they all make us feel something different, a feat of great direction and great acting.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) carries a different weight on his shoulders though, he brings these families' hope with him and blames himself when he cannot provide them the relief they so desperately crave. He’s haunted by his lack of answers to provide them with, unable to be the knight in shining armor they need. Gyllenhaal’s subtleties assist in making that feel possible, his ability to contort himself into something or someone else. Gyllenhaal is a craftsman of the art, always treating it as such. “Prisoners” is evidence of that in which he challenges himself and conforms himself with a presence that fills the screen.
Another presence fills the screen throughout this one hundred and fifty-three-minute runtime, a runtime that doesn’t feel long enough, is Roger Deakins, whose immaculate fingerprints can be found throughout the film's cinematography. The shadows and lighting and usage of the environments like that of the rain covered windows, paints a portrait that only a genius like Deakins could produce. He is also continually pressing forward with the camera, moving us towards the abyss with each tribulation and trial of the case, forcing us to dive deeper.
It’s staggering to see a film like this reviewed with a mere 82% fresh rating on the pristine Rotten Tomatoes. It’s shocking actually, as if a mentality that stems from across the aisle seems foreign, or faith under examination seems tacky. Reading through these reviews, I get that vibe. It’s a film that analyzes disturbing moral and religious complexities and does it with hefty amounts of dialogue while feeling incredibly unique, these all sound like characteristics attached to a movie that would be worshiped by critics.
“Prisoners” is not that film it seems, maybe it goes too far, maybe it doesn’t go far enough, but it's authentic, and comes to an end that warrants another viewing. Reality isn’t always comforting, and it rarely makes sense, and that’s something that makes “Prisoners” stand out. Villeneuve directs it that way, to make it feel as if something will budge, that somehow there's some sort of light to be shed, but it remains shrouded in dread, there's something special about that.
Editor's Note: This review was originally published on Sep 14, 2017 to critiquingcinema.com and has been re-written for qualitative purposes.