I have heard great things about Prisoners ever since its release in 2013 and yet somehow I couldn’t get myself to watch this film. The mood and feel of the film felt a tad bit too heavy for my taste. However constant praise showered on it just made it too important a film to miss and so I decided to finally watch it one chilly night. The film is directed by Denis Villeneuve and stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Denis Villeneuve is the man who brought us the extremely difficult to understand Enemy also starring Gyllenhaal which I am planning to watch and review very soon. “Prisoners” is essentially a thriller but has extremely potent human drama as an undertone which adds an interesting facet to the thrills that the story has to offer.
The story revolves around Keller Dover (Jackman) a family man who along with his family pays a visit to their neighbors, the Birchs. On that fateful day his kid daughter Anna goes missing with Birch’s daughter. A massive manhunt is launched to rescue the two girls. Dealing with the case is detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) a decorated detective who has solved every case that he has ever been assigned. The Dovers and Birchs inform the police that a RV was hovering around the neighborhood on the day the girls went missing. The RV is located soon enough and its driver, Alex (Paul Dano) is quickly arrested. On questioning its is revealed that Alex has an intellect of that of a 10 years old and his vehicle is also found to be clean without any traces of the two girls.
Dover is however not at all convinced that Alex is innocent and after being instigated by Alex, goes on to kidnap him. He keeps him at his father’s old residence and carries out a series of gruesome tortures on him to know the location of the girls. Alex holds out and as the tortures get more and more gruesome, he only increases in endurance. Loki, in the meantime knocks down several doors before landing up on a father’s place where he finds a dead body in the basement. He is still unable to find the girls. A chance encounter with a man at one of the remembrance meetings of the two girls changes that. He finally finds the lead that can actually lead him to the girls.
Prisoners is a dark and extremely disturbing thriller. The film in the very beginning gives us a POV shot from the RV and then multiple shots of the RV going around the two houses whose daughters are involved in the kidnapping to set up the premise very early. These shots actually make you think and consider Alex to be the criminal just like Dover believes. You not only sympathize with him but also hold every insane action of his to be perfectly justified. Thus the film is able to slowly build the other angle right under your nose that it plans to hit you with in the climax. The narrative is successfully able to keep that element under wraps and even though it gives you enough clues here and there, it never gives you enough to put a finger on what was to come.
This is probably one of the most character driven films of recent times. The film breathes through its performances and the way the narrative builds up is just an exponent of the way the characters change from start to finish. When you watch this film you see each of the characters transforming in terms of their behavior and the way they deal with the situations. With the ticking clock the parents begin to lose their cool and a few of them actually feel that they might never see their daughters again. Jackman’s character starts off confused and once he sets his onus on Alex he goes after him with everything that he has got. Even though there are multiple situations where his judgment and decisions are questioned, he just never loses his faith on the fact that Alex is guilty.
Loki on the other hand believes that Alex is innocent and goes to great extents to prove his innocence. He on the contrary feels that Dover may have more to do with the case than what appears to the eye. He even has the parents take lie detector tests proving his utter lack of faith in their statements. He still keeps his mind open and follows every lead. But as time runs out, he too starts getting frustrated realizing that the delay might be resulting in the death of the girls. Gyllenhaal really gives a power packed performance in this role. His expressions, mannerism and the sudden twitches in the eye are all in keeping with the mood and feel of the character.
Jackman might have just given the best performance of his career. He plays the distraught father to perfection. He is torn between his love and responsibility for his own daughter and his conscious understanding of what he was doing not being entirely right. But he still decides to go ahead with what he was doing and presents a straight face. It was truly a captivating essay from a man who never ceases to empress. Melissa Leo plays Alex’s aunt. She is a lady who holds her cool against a man who openly assaulted his nephew. Her character is one of the most important in the film as it in so many ways ties the whole film together. Her discussions with Jackman’s Dover is in so many ways one of the high points of the film. Paul Dano does a tremendous job as Alex.
The film doesn’t have a lot to offer in terms of visuals but I say that not in a demeaning manner but in terms of the material that it deals with. A large portion of the film unfolds indoors and there isn’t much of a sweeping visual style or take that you can attach to it without affecting the feel and realism of the story. The director takes a documentary style approach towards the visuals which really serves the film well. While there is little or no fluff involved in the manner of presentation of the narrative, the director successfully uses the camera angles and editing to build up the tension. The performances take the front seat in instilling the fear in you, but the manner in which the film is shot and edited has a lot to add to the performances. The first 15 minutes of the film is shot in a manner which takes you astray from the point which will in the end reveal itself and you are glad that it did so.
Towards the end, there is a scene where Loki is transporting one of the victims to a hospital as she is falling into a coma. Loki himself is bleeding and is unable to see the road clearly. The camera cuts back and forth between the way Loki is viewing the road and the actual state of traffic on the road compounding the effect of the sequence greatly and instilling edge of the seat thrills in the audience. Another novelty of this film is the manner in which it avoids the cheap thrills and genuinely makes you invest in the narrative. This film is made for those viewers who are willing to soak their senses and logic in the story and screenplay and are ready to invest in the proceedings completely.
I simply loved this film and went on to watch it twice over after the first viewing just to be able to garner enough from it to be able to write this review. It is that kind of film which gives you something more every time you watch it. It has tremendous re-see value and that’s another reason for you to checkout this film. If you are the sort who loves sensible cinema and have a thing for dark and gritty thrillers, this is a must watch.