Review – Prisoners

The mark of Scandinavian crime drama seeps into every gloomy frame of this brutal and nihilistic English language debut from director Denis Villeneuve.

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia

Prisoners opens with carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) uttering the Lord’s Prayer before his son (Dylan Minnette) shoots his first deer. It’s a symbolic moment – a violent act performed in God’s name, one in which forgiveness is spoken of but ultimately ignored.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) demands action from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to find his daugher in Prisoners

Keller is a deeply religious man whose New Testament nature gives way to Old Testament retribution when his young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) goes missing along with the daughter of his good friend Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) during a Thanksgiving dinner. Panic and grief give way to murderous vengeance for Keller when the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release their chief suspect, the mentally challenged Alex (Paul Dano).

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Prime suspect Alex (Paul Dano) is interrogated by Detecive Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) in Prisoners

Loki implores Keller and his wife Grace, who’s become virtually catatonic through grief, to let him do his job, which involves methodically following whatever leads the case throws up. But blinded by rage and convinced that Alex knows where the girls are being held, an obsessive Keller takes it upon himself to act as judge, jury and, if necessary, executioner to find the ‘truth’, sucking Franklin and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) into his increasingly disturbing descent.

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Keller Dover takes the law into his own hands in Prisoners

Cinematographer par excellence Roger Deakins infuses Prisoners with an almost suffocating dread – woods haven’t looked this spine-tingling since The Blair Witch Project. Not only does the film coldly nod in the direction of Scandi-drama, it also owes a lot to the slate-grey creepiness of David Fincher (in particular Seven and Zodiac), whose most recent film is, of course, his remake of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Another Scandi-connection can be found in the atmospheric soundtrack provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

As well as the obvious religious overtones, it’s also easy to find a 9/11 allegory in Prisoners – a wounded America (religious everyman Keller) goes in search of revenge against its quarry (Alex) and is prepared to sacrifice its moral superiority to quench its thirst for vengeance.

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover's quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are dragged into Keller Dover’s quest for vengeance in Prisoners

Aaron Guzikowski’s script asks some troubling questions, most notably, to what lengths would you as a parent go when your worst nightmares are realised. Given the right material, Jackman can really act and shows he’s far more than the Wolverine with a raw and powerful performance as Keller. Jackman’s natural physicality lends a ticking time bomb nature to his character, someone who you believe will do anything to get his daughter back.

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) protects Alex (Paul Dano) in Prisoners

Gyllenhaal, who played a political cartoonist dragged into tracking down a serial killer in Zodiac, gives Loki (another Scandinavian connection) a stoical implacability that nicely mirrors Keller’s bull-in-a-china-shop aggressiveness. His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) on the case in Prisoners

The heavyweight supporting cast are uniformly excellent. Dano, normally a little too over-the-top, dials it right down as the tragic Alex; Howard and Davis are entirely believable as a couple who suddenly find themselves on the wrong side of the moral line and don’t know what to do; while Melissa Leo is reliably great as Alex’s impassive Aunt Holly.

It’s not until you watch the film that you realise just how rare a commodity it is in American studio cinema these days. Prisoners may retreat into traditional thriller territory, especially in its final act, but it offers no easy answers and paints a very troubling picture of God-fearing American suburbia.

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15 comments

  1. Brittani Burnham · October 5, 2013

    Great review! I loved this one so much. I can’t wait to see it again.

    • Three Rows Back · October 6, 2013

      Thanks very much. It’s not a film I plan of revisiting any time soon, but only because of the subject matter.

  2. Chris · October 5, 2013

    Good review, and definitely a good movie. I do disagree with one minor detail, though, as I personally took Gyllenhaal’s blinking as a sign of sleep deprivation more than bewilderment, but that’s just how I saw it.

    • Three Rows Back · October 6, 2013

      Fair point. I guess it’s a matter of interpretation; both as valid as each other. Thanks for the great feedback.

  3. CMrok93 · October 5, 2013

    The cast really kept this one moving, even in the parts where it seemed to slow down and focus more on conventionality. Good review.

  4. Zoë · October 7, 2013

    Nice review. I really want to check this one out!

  5. Terry Malloy's Pigeon Coop · October 8, 2013

    Really great write up Mark. Saw this the other day and enjoyed it. I thought the final third fell apart a little and went a little too conventional but aside from that, it was a really tight thriller, and I had the exact same thought that it had that Scandinavian feel to it.

  6. sanclementejedi · October 10, 2013

    Still have not had a chance to see this yet. However, I am happy to read that the director is Scandinavian. Perhaps this weekend.

  7. sati · October 10, 2013

    Great review! I didn’t enjoy the film nearly as much as you did, though. I thought the film was quite messy and all those red herrings were there only to fool the audience instead of really being justified by the story. I really liked Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis, though.

  8. Tom · October 15, 2013

    god man, I love the level of detail at which you are able to analyze these films. “His pronounced blinking suggests an appalled bewilderment at what his character is investigating and contributes to what is the latest in a line of fine performances from Gyllenhaal.” You get to some things that I only wish I could point out in my writing! haha cheers man. great job. Loved this film. Between this, Gravity and Captain Phillips, I”m pretty worn-out from watching stressful movies! 🙂

    • Three Rows Back · October 16, 2013

      You’re too kind! I’ll look forward to the LAMB award nomination ;). It’s been a pretty full on few weeks hasn’t it, although I much prefer this time of year to summer season.

  9. jjames36 · October 17, 2013

    This is a great review. You very adeptly point out the film’s strength, highlighting what makes it different for a Hollywood film. Though I think the movie more flawed than you do, I do not disagree with anything you’ve written. Very well done!

    • Three Rows Back · October 17, 2013

      Much appreciated, thanks for the kind words my friend. I can understand why you may not enjoy it as much as me; it definitely has its faults, especially in its final act, but it’s refreshing to see a studio picture that’s willing to treat its audience as adults.

      • jjames36 · October 17, 2013

        Completely agreed. Equally refreshing, I think, to see one that is willing to ask its audience to think, both about morality and character.

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