Saturday, September 21, 2013
(I don't think I've given away anything that isn't in the ads, but read at your own risk.)
Prisoners, directed by Denis Villeneuve, succeeds as a tense and exacting thriller that finds a way of asking it audience to do the same moral work that confronts its characters. While on the surface Villenueve has made a crackling crime story with a plot much more complicated than movie’s marketing suggests, he and writer Aaron Guzikowski also continue to switch points of view and sympathies to create a nuanced piece of adult cinema that speaks with remarkable lack of judgement. On Thanksgiving Day, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) take their two children down the street to eat with their good friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch. After dinner the Dovers’ young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the Birches’ Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). The disappearance is quickly tied to an old RV seen in the area and its driver Alex (Paul Dano, in a high wire act of a performance) is arrested by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Alex is a childlike young man whose level of understanding is questionable. He is released into the custody of his aunt (Melissa Leo) due to lack of evidence; then Keller takes matters into his own hands and the movie becomes something else entirely.
When Keller kidnaps and tortures Alex we understand his behavior even as we abhor it. The ambivalence with which Franklin and Nancy react is a mirror for our own feelings, and Villenueve doesn’t flinch from the horror of Keller’s actions. Some have suggested Prisoners is an allegory for American behavior post-9/11, but while the movie is without doubt located in the present it isn’t overtly political and rather tries to speak to the way that violence can flow across generations. Keller has a world view (“Pray for the best, but prepare for the worst.”) that movies usually marginalize as nutty or dangerous, but from the first scene Guzikowski and Jackman locate it deep in Keller’s psyche. His behavior is the result of the man he has been formed into, and that’s why (though the uselessness of torture is addressed) I largely resist a political interpretation. Keller has to do something because he can’t do nothing, and our reaction is complicated by the way that he slowly realizes he isn’t accomplishing anything. Hugh Jackman plays Keller with a focus and intensity that his more celebrated roles don’t allow for. There is no room for Jackman to be grumpy or sarcastic a la Wolverine, and so he isn’t. If Prisoners finds an audience then this is a career changing performance, and one supported by excellent work from Gyllenhaal and Dano.
The marvel of Prisoners is the way it complicates our reactions. From one scene to the next we can see how Keller views Loki (dedicated to the point of obsession) as brusque and indifferent and how Loki looks at Keller as a man folding in on himself who is capable of anything. The great Viola Davis is on screen much less than the male leads, but after only a few minutes the way that Nancy can show a kind of situational compassion feels completely consistent in the world of the movie. There is room enough in a two and a half hour running time both for a study of Keller and for a police procedural that rewards close attention. Denis Villenueve is a young director worthy of regard. I actually didn’t care much for his celebrated Incendies, but that film shares with Prisoners a sense of the past at work in the present in a way that we can never escape. If there is a flaw here it is the irony of the ending, which can be anticipated (in a general sense) after we experience the heat of Keller’s rage. Yet it’s the ending and the full horror of Prisoners, not just the initial abduction, that elevates what could have been a superbly made crime movie into a genuine tragedy.