Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal
Some films can be challenging to get through, even grueling. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as long as there’s purpose to the pain. Prisoners is one of those movies: it’s emotionally grueling, easily one of the most challenging films in the last few years. The story deals with abducted children so it’s obviously not going to be a joyride.
Based off the actual plot details released I was curious about the title of the film. There’s the obvious physical imprisoning of the children and of the man that Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover is so sure committed the act. The more important prisons in this film though are the metaphorical ones. Dover is imprisoned by his pain and his guilt for not saving his daughter. Dover’s wife is in that same prison which finds her escaping through drugs. Jake Gyllenhaal plays a police detective imprisoned by the rules he upholds and nagging guilt as days pass with no results.
The movie splits between observations of these prisons and a procedural investigation. These are middle class working people with no power or influence, nothing to help push the investigation and search forward. The movie is lengthy and slow paced but this execution brings the viewer into the prisons the story has crafted and it’s painful and at a minimum uncomfortable. The character development, execution of pacing, and even to a point the use of color reminded me of The Deer Hunter. There are many quiet moments with facial expressions and body language left to tell what the characters are going through. It’s in these scenes that the two leads really demonstrate their acting chops. There are bombastic moments that also work but it’s the quiet moments when each one of them is truly helpless and giving in to that fact that resonate the most. The atmosphere is also reminiscent of the more recent film Drive.
The third act stumbles just a little when motivations are revealed in an almost unimportant rushed way. The thing is this movie isn’t about the “why” or even the how, it’s truly about the physical and emotional prisons each character is forced into and the steps they are willing to take to get free, if they’re willing to take any steps at all. No film this year has been as emotionally challenging as Prisoners. The two lead actors own this movie but nearly every other member of this top notch group of character actors gets a scene to shine, to truly matter. Only Maria Bello gets the shaft with a pretty thankless role but with that said she does a fine job with what she’s given.
Is Prisoners the best movie of the year so far? It’s a funny question to ask but it deserves consideration. The film is about the characters and atmosphere first and the investigation and answered questions second and because of that it hiccups a little in the final act. It just doesn’t matter though. Prisoners warrants being seen and the two leads deserve Oscar attention. The story could easily have veered into Lifetime land and just when you think it might, the movie ends with a truly breathtaking moment. It’s not a happy movie and I came out speechless and moved. At the same time I came out exhilarated because I saw a film that did move me, that did take the breath from me, and that mattered. There will be those that say “oh I had it figured from the beginning” and those people will have missed the whole point of the experience.