Monday, September 23, 2013

Review: Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners (2013)

Now that summer's over, it's time once again for the grown-ups to play. And despite being a September release, with all that implies, Prisoners rises far, far above its dump-month release date to be one of the most welcome surprises of the year. It is dark, it is brutal, and it can be slow at times (running at close to two and a half hours), but for those willing to take their time and not look away at some of this film's more grueling scenes, Prisoners is a knockout. If you're a fan of pot-boiler mystery stories but are getting burned out by their cliches, then you'll appreciate the twists that this film takes with the genre.

The film starts with two children, from two different families, being kidnapped by an unknown assailant. The initial suspect is Alex, a mentally disabled man who lives with his aunt; the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), dismiss the man due to lack of evidence and continue on with their investigation, but Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the father of one of the girls, is convinced that Alex has the girls or was involved in the kidnapping. He then proceeds to kidnap Alex and torture him for information on where the girls are, later assisted by the parents of the other girl, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). Meanwhile, Detective Loki continues to search for the real kidnapper, leading him to Alex's aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), a pedophile priest, and a mysterious man in a hoodie.

To say anything more from there would be to risk spoilers, but suffice it to say that even if I did give spoilers, this is a film that's more about the journey than the destination. Hugh Jackman's Keller is a dismantling of characters like Bryan Mills from the Taken films, the family man with a badass secret who will go to any lengths to rescue his loved ones. Here, we have a character that we are meant to root for instantly, by virtue of both his personality and the circumstances he finds himself in, and yet as the film progresses, that same personality, those same circumstances, pull him down a road that makes one question if he isn't just as evil as the bad guys. One has to wonder if what he goes through in the third act is his just desserts after all of what he committed. Jackman's performance in particular helps to pull the viewer into that character and his journey into darkness, starting off sympathetic and slowly getting blinded by rage.

As I said earlier, this film is long, and it feels long. Much of the middle section of the movie revolves around Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki searching for the killer in a maze of red herrings and misdirection. You will probably be frustrated as you sit through this film's lengthy second act, wondering when they're finally going to find the bad guy, and while I would normally dock a film for that, here that frustration is the whole point. Loki is a good guy, but as a detective, he's in way over his head, constantly running in circles into false leads and dead ends. Much like Jackman, Gyllenhaal too perfectly embodied his character, a man who constantly looks as though he's one missed coffee break away from calling it quits. The dreariness of the film's wintry Pennsylvania suburbia is likewise specifically designed to beat down on the viewer, to remind us that this film is taking place in the real world of average people, not in the world of a suspense novel where the hero is guaranteed a clean-cut victory. In fact, that is kind of the point of this film: what would happen if you took a wicked villain like Buffalo Bill and had, instead of Clarice Starling or Mike Hammer, actual, real-world, small-town detectives try to handle him, and victims' families who acted realistically? The answer proposed by this film is: not a whole lot of good. Without spoiling anything, this movie gets really dark, really fast, building up to an ending that I can only say rivals Inception in how it uses a note of ambiguity to keep the tension going even after you're in the car driving home.

Score: 5 out of 5

Every piece of this movie is so very well put together that even the parts that, in any other movie, would drag it down reinforce it instead. It's a grueling watch, but one that is absolutely worth your time.

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