Review: Prisoners

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Prisoners commences with the Lord’s prayer, spoken with solemn reverence as a lone doe enters the frame in an ashen Pennsylvania forest. Like a Native American thanking his God and the animal for the feast he is about to receive, the conclusion of Dover Keller’s (Hugh Jackman) prayer gives his son permission to kill the animal. Likewise Keller gives himself permission to go to disturbing lengths in the hopes of finding his daughter in the days after her Thanksgiving kidnapping. What possesses a man to descend into moral and emotional chaos? Prisoners may not answer this question fully, but its examination of the of the effects of grief elevate it above traditional police procedurals.

The abduction of a family member presents traumatizing consequences that in some cases can even exceed death. In the case of the latter, no matter if prolonged or abrupt, there is a finality even if closure may be a distance away. In the case of an abduction, however, a pervading sense of fear builds endlessly, and Prisoners provides its focus on that fear with tactile shock and a palpable regression into rage. It all begins on Thanksgiving evening when the Keller family comes to the neighboring home of the Birch family for the typical autumnal festivities, and its the only respite that the film offers. When both of their youngest daughters venture back to the Keller house, they vanish into thin air. The only possible clue as to their whereabouts is a shady RV parked several houses down. When Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds the slow witted driver of the RV (Paul Dano) to be blameless and no immediate leads evident, Dover sees no choice but to take matters into his own hands.

Where some thrillers would dive instantly into the thorny plot ahead, Prisoners instead gives equal attention to the story unfolding with the families, and this is where its strengths lie. Dover’s choices are less an arc for him, and more a careful unveiling of his true nature. His decisions, though dark and questionable, are driven by his relentless devotion to his daughter. Hugh Jackman’s performance here is as grizzled and raw as the actor can offer, gradually succumbing to his inner demons. The gray morality of Prisoners is its most compelling angle, for even when the Birch parents (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) discover the disturbing results of Dover’s pursuit of the truth, they cannot help but permit him to continue. The actual work of finding the girls by Detective Loki is nearly as fascinating, if less imaginative. There are certainly twists to the hunt, several of which are unexpected and lead Loki to seeming dead ends, but his journey is naturally intertwined with Dover’s. Though he’s required to play it straight, Jake Gyllenhaal acquits himself professionally as the surrounding community cannot help but collapse into despair. Once the film moves into its revelatory third act, it settles for a few narrative conceits and even leaves out certain details which don’t necessarily detract from the emotional climax as they do from the believable steps to arrive there.

Though shot in Georgia, Prisoners is set in Pennsylvania, and it cannot be discounted how much the region and weather play a role in the storytelling of the film. The murky overcast days and the the overbearing late November rain consistently add to the atmosphere. These visuals are captured with a master’s eye by director of photography Roger Deakins, whose attention to the textures of the forest, or a singularly lit eye peering out of a tight space makes for yet another career highlight. At 158 minutes, the length Prisoners can be felt, but its measured pacing puts one in empathy with the families forced to endure the passing time. American debuts by foreign directors have a notoriously mixed success rate, but for Frenchman Denis Villeneuve Prisoners is a muscular immigration, less a question of whether two little girls will ever be found, and more an investigation as to whether a family can ever be the same again.

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~ by romancinema on September 23, 2013.

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