"Prisoners" (2013)- Movie Review

Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Terrence Howard

‘Mind-Boggling Complexity’


Movies rarely ever surprise these days. Whether it’s a cash-grabbing blockbuster that refuses to take bold routes, or a predictable romantic comedy, most films have the same purpose: to purely entertain. Yet when they’re made for the sole sake of being past-time, any hope for originality and creativity immediately vanishes. The expectations of movie-goers wanting fun, pop-corn bonanza are fulfillingly met, while audiences expecting more are left in tearful disappointment.


One of the first films of the year that might please the latter is Dennis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners”. An insanely terrifying, suspenseful and thought-provoking thriller, it raises inevitable questions about morality. What is it exactly that defines us, as human beings? Is it what we do, or the reasons behind each of our actions? In a year where movies have hardly offered such meaningful topics, “Prisoners” is a bold, remarkably complex film that dares to challenge the viewer. Although it’s ambitious goals are somewhat squandered by heavy-handled execution, it’s the best kind of a thriller; both edge-of-the seat gripping and poetically defined.

Like an instant rush of adrenaline to the senses, this psychological character study hooks you into it’s mind-boggling themes and refuses to let go. While the advertisements for the film display it as an entertaining crime-thriller, it’s miles more complex than it seems on the surface. Dealing with the regretful grief experienced by those who lose loved ones, the thriller is a nightmarish account of how emotions drive humans to commit immoral deeds. For a story so layered in terms of themes, what’s astonishing is how it chooses to build off a familiar, contrived concept in the thriller genre.

The plot- a kidnapping crime procedure- on hindsight appears to be fairly basic. But don’t let that fool you. Unlike most movies of it’s type, “Prisoners” patiently takes it’s time to unfold the genius beneath a seemingly worn-out idea. Hugh Jackman stars in the leading role as Keller Dover, a loving father and husband, who strives to hold his family together like any ordinary man. Yet just how far would he go to protect them from danger? On Thanksgiving Day, this challenge is put to test when Dover’s friends invite his family over for dinner. In one of the rare joyous scenes in an otherwise grim film, Dover happens to be satisfied with life until his daughters suddenly disappear. As both him and his wife (Maria Bello) are plunged into a state of agonizing despair, there only hope is Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), an ambitious detective who promises help.

If you’re already worried that this might turn into a generic thriller, it’s safe to say that you can breathe a sigh of relief. Just when you think “Prisoners” is culminating to be a formulaic edge-of-the-seat caper, director Denis Villeneuve as well as a fantastic cast pull a 360 degree magic trick on your expectations. From the moment that the central conflict of the story is introduced, the film completely transforms into a rich, unforgivably haunting character study where surprises are galore and tension everlasting. The choices made by the characters, along with the motivations beneath them, develop an inevitable sense of intrigue which keeps the suspense at a nerve-wracking level.

Through a captivating musical score, and strikingly stunning visual imagery, this nail-biting intensity never loses steam. When you have a look at who’s the cinematographer for “Prisoners”, it’s easy to see why. The world-renowned Roger Deakins, who’s last venture was 2012’s gloriously filmed “Skyfall”, brings his absolute A-game to this project. Expertly setting the dark, nauseatingly uncomfortable mood of this thriller, his style brings into mind the tone of a David Fincher film. Atmospheric, gloomy and deliberately constructed to make one queasy, the visuals are carved perfectly into the setting of “Prisoners”.

Dominating this setting are some of the most unforgettable performers of the year.

Hugh Jackman ferociously sinks his teeth into what is arguably one of the best performances he’s ever given. Nearly every scene has the actor hopelessly struggling to control rage fits, and although that may seem overbearing on the surface, his presence is electric. As he screams and roars in despair, while also quietly brooding in depression, the actor miraculously makes you feel the several emotions experienced by his character. Through Jackman’s unparalleled confidence, we feel the weight felt by a troubled man trying to find justice in the wrong way.

Jake Gyllenhaal is equally terrific, pulling a unique spin on the standard detective role. On paper, the character seems rather simple-minded and devoid of depth, yet Gyllenhaal surprisingly proves to have many tricks up his sleeve. Turning the familiar, worn-out detective we usually expect from Hollywood into a fascinating person, he plays off Jackman’s performance marvelously.

One of the most riveting scenes in “Prisoners” arrives when these actors are interacting, working off each other like black and white. Jackman explodes in fury, while Gyllenhaal brings a certain subtlety that produces a stark contrast between the two. Watching them merely talk to each other, is like experiencing the explosion of fireworks in the dark, chilly night.

Unfortunately, however, even that’s not enough to make up for the glaring flaws in the film. When you’re not biting your nails at the utterly evocative suspense, you’ll likely be scratching your head at the sinking plot holes and frustrating lack of character development. Throwing in as much subplots, characters and themes after all, does come at a high cost for director Denis Villeneuve as he struggles to put his thoughts on paper. The result is an intricately constructed mind-game of a thriller where all the dots don’t quite connect neatly. Neither do the supporting characters, as their motivations seem devoid of proper reasoning. Mario Bello fills in the stereotypical role of a woman who solely weeps at the absence of her children, while despite giving an emotionally resonant performance, Terrence Howard is bottled down by a rather wooden character.

Many audiences may also be drawn away by the grueling, harshly violent subject matter in the movie. There’s plenty of bloodshed aboard this suspense-vehicle that’s definitely not meant for the faint of heart.

But if you’re a lover of films and willing to endure such content, “Prisoners” is too much of an exhilarating and exciting movie-going experience to miss. Even though the running time tiptoes past two and a half hours, there’s not a moment where you aren’t glued to the screen. In a day and age where most movies can’t muster the energy to engage so relentlessly, this thriller topples over your senses. It’s so hypnotically mesmerizing that it’s effect is hard to shake off for days.

4.5/5 stars


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