Friday, September 27, 2013

Review: Prisoners

To say that Prisoners is a set in a cold dour place where hope goes to die would seem an understatement.  From gray skies to weathered buildings to the malaise of mid-life domesticity, the world the film depicts is outwardly bland but inwardly reeks of silent oppression.  The film then poses the question of what happens when tragedy strikes; that silent oppression boils over; and those internalized feelings of desperation become externalized?  So you could say that a Sunday stroll in the park, this movie is not.  But just because Prisoners may not be fun, doesn’t necessarily mean it is terrible.

The film finds the Dover family spending Thanksgiving with the Birch family at their home.  During the course of the festivities, the youngest of each family – Anna Dover and Joy Birch – go missing.  Initially they are presumed to have gone for a walk in the neighborhood, but when a search proves futile, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is called in to investigate the case.  With many leads in play, Gyllenhaal’s Loki launches a search that takes the investigation deep into the town’s past and uncovers some dark secrets.

You could look at this synopsis and assume it’s your typical small town narrative featuring a cop who works the suspects through a number of plot twists until the criminal mastermind is revealed in the third act.  On some level, this would be true, but that would not do director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski’s film justice.  There are religious undertones that delve into the nature of relationships between father and child as well as wife and husband.  Sure, the film features physically gruesome acts and moments of thrilling tension to keep the audience on the edge of their respective seats, but this film is ultimately an intense character sketch.

A lot of what works about this film begins and ends with Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover.  One of the most recognizable stars in the world, he disappears into this role in impressive fashion channeling the requisite raw emotion and intensity.  He has the unique challenge of making the audience empathize with his character even during those moments where his actions might make it difficult to do so, but his commitment to the role allows him to pull it off.  His work in this film won’t garner the praise and recognition of some of his higher profile roles, but it is every bit as good. 

Working opposite Jackman is Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki.  I have to be honest and say that it was not his best work.  It was not even his best portrayal of a police officer.  That distinction would have to go to his work in End of Watch.  In this film, he is wildly uneven and inconsistent, making it difficult to wrap your head around the character.  Some of these issues have to be script related as the Detective Loki at times acts and reacts in a way contrary to what we’ve been told about the character, but then Gyllenhaal does nothing to help.  By failing to embrace the role with vigor and to make the character his own, he fails to smooth out some of those wrinkles.

Then there is Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch.  Depending on whom you believe, Howard was bounced from Iron Man 2 for either his inability to act or to the size of his contract for the sequel.  After seeing him in this film, I am convinced that it was the latter.  His performance is an epic fail from start to finish punctuated by a couple of instances where his acting during grave moments actually elicited laughter from the viewing audience.  And believe me when I tell you that this is exactly the wrong kind of movie for an actor to be unintentionally funny.

Two members of the cast who faired better are Viola Davis and Paul Dano.  Davis (as Nancy Birch) is strong yet vulnerable as a grief stricken mother and she channels all the emotions as an actor that Terrence Howard cannot.  Dano also turns in good work as Alex Jones, a young man suspected of kidnapping the two girls.  It’s not easy to be simplistic, detached, undeveloped yet menacing all at the same time, but he does so despite the paucity of spoken lines.

As for the rest of the cast, Melissa Leo is satisfactory playing Holly Jones (kin to Alex Jones) but gets props for the physical transformation she undergoes to play a much older woman.  Maria Bello is also satisfactory as she plays the grieving mother by the book, just hitting the right notes at the right time – nothing more and nothing less.  And the younger members of the cast, they collectively do just enough not to stand out but then not much else is truly asked of them.

When you pull all these pieces together, it is clear that Prisoners is at the least a decent film from a technical aspect; tension and drama from a character-driven script, strong acting from the lead, and a few gems from the supporting cast to add depth and greater weight to the stakes embedded in the narrative.  Still, I don’t think this is a movie for everyone.  I am always the first to say that at the very least, a movie should be fun and entertaining and this one is definitely not the former.  Instead it’s trying to pull you into this place where it is cold, dark, and conflicted.  So if this sounds like your cup of tea, I would encourage you to give this one a look on DVD after its theatrical run.  For everyone else, catch it on cable somewhere down the line or take pass altogether.  It probably won’t make any of your top ten lists, but it won’t compel you to swear off movies forever.

Standout Performance:  Hugh Jackman.  A gifted triple threat performer who truly embraces all that this role requires.


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