REVIEW: “Prisoners”

Prisoners poster

There isn’t an ounce of Hollywood spectacle or flash in “Prisoners”. Instead Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (in his American movie debut) creates an intense and methodical thriller rooted in an uncomfortable realism. The story is bleak and unsettling and hope, much like the cold wet weather, deteriorates as the movie takes one emotion turn after another. It’s powerful stuff brought together by an impressive and capable director, a phenomenal cast, and a really strong script.

The story revolves around the abduction of two young girls in a working class Pennsylvania town. The parents, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) go through a whirlwind of ever-changing emotions and developments. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a determined yet complex officer with a stellar reputation for solving cases. Paul Dano plays the chief subject who has the mind of a 12-year old. Melissa Leo plays his mother. The story features several misdirections and twists, each effecting these characters in an assortment of different ways.

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You can’t talk about “Prisoners” without focusing on the stellar cast. Jackman gives the performance of his career. He peels back the layers of conflicting emotion and exposes a vulnerability that I’ve never seen from him. He causes you to feel sympathy for the character while also making you shudder at his actions especially when the chief suspect is released for lack of evidence. I also feel this is some of Gyllenhaal’s best work. I’ve always been mixed when it comes to his acting prowess but he’s so good here. Sporting a threatening neck tattoo and slouchy top-buttoned shirt, you always get the feeling he has some baggage he’s struggling with.

There is also a great sense of place throughout the entire film. The rain, snow, and cold weather plays an ever-present role and the locations set things firmly in a blue-collar Northeastern environment. The great cinematographer Roger Deakins gets a ton of credit for that. His camera seems perfectly in tune with the moods of each scene and he gives us several unforgettable shots. It’s his first work since “Skyfall” and he once again shows that he is a true master of his craft.

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“Prisoners” can at times be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons. Of course the child abduction aspect isn’t something anyone is comfortable with. But there is a sly cleverness to how the movie deals with human nature particularly the thirst for revenge. We see how the emotionally compromised can be consumed by their sorrow and resort to terrible things. But is there a time when certain tactics are justified? Are their instances where you would do the same thing? These are interesting questions and the movie lets you decide the answers yourself.

“Prisoners” offers some slick foreboding, crafty twists, and a satisfying ending. An A-list cast masterfully handles the material and the look and tone of the film is just right. The sharp direction works in conjunction with a smart script to create a visceral experience that will stick with you. It does get a tad heavy at times and the running time is a bit long, but it still is one of the better and more intense thrillers of late.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

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21 thoughts on “REVIEW: “Prisoners”

  1. Hey, coincidentally I very nearly watched this last night, but in the end I stuck on The Act Of Killing. I’ll watch Prisoners this weekend though; I read a lot about it at the time it came out and I’m not really sure why I haven’t checked it out until now. Good to see some more praise for it.

    • Definitely worth watching. I wrote this a while back and after re-watching it decided it was time to post it. My feelings held up. It’s a very good movie with a lot of tension and emotion.

  2. Wholly agree with you, Keith. It IS an unsettling film and not the easiest of watches. Not something I’d rush back to watch again. But glad I did see it. Like you, I was bowled over by Jackman, but I think it’s Gylenhaal who’s really doing some amazing work right now.

  3. Such a great thrill ride Keith. Still got Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s emotional performances vividly in my memory, I kind of want to buy this one on DVD just to experience it again and again. I try not to do that when I see so many new releases but man, that one was an exception!

    Have u seen him in Nighcrawler yet??

    • I haven’t seen it yet but I’ve heard a lot of interesting things about it. Jake has turned into a genuinely good actor. I really wasn’t certain about him at first but I have to say I’m very impressed.

  4. I think you know how I feel about this movie, Keith, since it made a spot on a particular list. However, despite the fact that I didn’t like it, doesn’t mean that I couldn’t appreciate how great a movie it was. Hugh Jackman seems more emotionally in-tune with Prisoners than most of his films, but then again, how often does he get to play anyone else aside from Wolverine? That said, I was so emotionally-disturbed by multiple characters (and their actions), that I don’t think I could ever revisit this film, regardless of all its good characteristics.

    • I completely understand what you’re saying. It is very uncomfortable and unnerving at times. I think that is a strength of the film but not to the point of rewatching it multiple times. It really is tough subject matter.

  5. Great review Keith. This was my favorite of 2013, and I am surprised that this didn’t get more love from the academy like I feel it warranted, but the heavy subject matter may have played a part in it.

    I own the Blu-Ray, but I have yet to watch again after the initial view in theaters. It is really unsettling, and gets under your skin after thinking about it more and reading into symbolism and what not. But it still is a superb film. I’ll give this one more watch before I may never view again lol.

    • I understand where you’re coming from. It really is unsettling. It hits that uncomfortable subject matter head-on and the performances are so real. I am surprised the performances didnt get some Academy love.

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