Prisoners (United States, 2013)

September 19, 2013
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Prisoners Poster

Whodunits are rarely a good playground for Hollywood films. The average mystery, whether a stripped-down Agatha Christie-esque tale or a more complex endeavor, is too demanding for the structural constraints of a motion picture. As a result, when one is attempted, it's usually not difficult to identify the criminal and map out the general trajectory of the narrative. Running length and the concept of "conservation of characters" become stumbling blocks. Successes like Prisoners occur from time to time, but they are exceptions. This particular whodunit works in large part because it's interested in exploring more than just the question of which character is responsible for the crime. Aaron Gruzikowski's script, as brought to the screen by Canadian-born director Denis Villeneuve, examines issues of guilt, innocence, and desperation.

Last year, it was rightfully argued that the "Oscar race" began with the release of Argo in early October. This year, the race starts a couple weeks earlier with the opening of Prisoners. Barring a truly phenomenal fourth quarter, it's hard to imagine Prisoners not being one of the titles among the Best Picture nominees. As mystery/thrillers go, this one falls into the "prestige" area. The screenplay is smart, the execution is impeccable, and the holes are few and far between. Best of all, it lacks the cookie-cutter element that infects too many of these movies. Although I figured out the puzzle before its explicit reveal, I didn't put the final piece into place until shortly before that moment. It's rare that a movie keeps me guessing that long.

As satisfying as Prisoners is from a mystery standpoint, some will find it tough going. The subject matter - child abduction and possible child murder and/or abuse - will make some viewers uncomfortable to the point where they may not be able to watch the entire thing. There are no graphic scenes of child mistreatment but the importance of the topic to the narrative may be upsetting for some viewers. Prisoners isn't a "feel good" experience. It's dark, straying into the territory where David Fincher enjoys spinning his yarns. The presence of Jake Gyllenhaal creates unintentional echoes of Zodiac.

There's nothing simple or straightforward about the story except the way it starts. Two neighboring western Pennsylvania families gather for Thanksgiving dinner. The Dovers, headed by father Keller (Hugh Jackman) and mother Grace (Maria Bello), visit the Birches, where dad Franklin (Terrence Howard) and mom Nancy (Viola Davis) preside over a huge repast. After dinner, as the adults are talking and the teenagers are watching TV, the two young girls - Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) - go outside. Time passes and they don't return. At first, no one is alarmed but, after a quick reconnaissance of the neighborhood doesn't turn them up, they call the police. Enter Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a lonely cop with a reputation for solving cases. The initial clues point to a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but it turns out that he lacks the mental capacity to successfully orchestrate a kidnapping. Nevertheless, circumstantial evidence points to his involvement and a grief-stricken Keller decides that if the police can't or won't wring a confession from Alex, he'll do it himself.

We've seen this sort of thing before, most powerfully in the Paradise Lost documentaries - how the public need to "solve" a crime can trump the innocence of suspect. Closure demands the identification of a malefactor. The problem is that no matter how convincing the case may be against that person, it isn't always everything and the truth may lie in the missing pieces. The most compelling argument against capital punishment is that you can't resurrect a wrongly executed man. There's something of that in Prisoners.

The narrative is strewn with seemingly disconnected clues and unanswered questions. Does Alex whisper something to Keller during an encounter and, if so, what does he say? Who lives in the house near where the alleged abduction takes place? What secret is the alcoholic priest hiding? Who is the mysterious figure at the vigil? What are the significances of mazes and snakes? And what's the role of God and religion in all this? Gruzikowski's screenplay ties these elements together with precision. In hindsight, it's easy to see how everything falls neatly into place. Nothing about Prisoners is haphazard or poorly thought out.

The cast is remarkable. Five of the seven principal cast members own previous Oscar nominations. (The exceptions are Maria Bello and Paul Dano.) With such a powerhouse roster, one expects strong performances, and those are forthcoming. Hugh Jackman in particular is noteworthy - he shows more depth than in any previous high-profile role, including Les Miserables, for which he received his nomination. Jake Gyllenhaal brings his craft to a new level as a world-weary detective who would have been at home in a classic film noir. Bello, Dano, Viola Davis, Terence Howard, and Melissa Leo all contribute effective supporting work. If there's a blotch - and it's a small one, to be sure - it's that the makeup used to age Leo looks like, well, makeup used to make someone look old.

Prisoners is a thriller for grown-ups. This is the only time of the year when we get those. It doesn't pander to the least common denominator. It doesn't shirk from asking difficult questions and tackling uncomfortable issues. It isn’t afraid of generating an emotional response but doesn't manipulate the audience to get it. Most of all, it's unconcerned about the frustration that might arise from an inconclusive ending. Denis Villeneuve has made the film he wanted to and, refreshingly, it defies many of Hollywood's tenets about what constitutes "crowd pleasing." Powerful movies are often disconcerting, and Prisoners is no exception.

Prisoners (United States, 2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo
Screenplay: Aaron Gruzikowski
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Music: Johann Johannsson
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2013-09-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1