Movie Review – Prisoners (2013)

Compelling, terrifically well acted and superbly directed crime thriller that maintains its heart-in-mouth tension from the opening minutes. Yes, that running time is correct – the film slugs in at a hair over two and a half hours, but the premise and scripting is blisteringly delivered in what can only be described as a potential Oscar winning manner. The subject matter is confronting, haunting even, and as a parent it’s the kind of thing you have nightmares over, but as a film, it is utterly terrific.


– Summary –

Director :   Denis Villeneuve
Year Of Release :   2013
Principal Cast :  Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Wayne Duvall, Kyla Drew Simmons, Len Cariou, David Dastmalchian.
Approx Running Time :   153 Minutes
Synopsis:  When a pair of young girls is kidnapped on Thanksgiving, their fathers will stop at nothing to find them. Nothing.
What we think :  Compelling, superbly acted and brilliantly directed crime thriller that maintains its heart-in-mouth tension from the opening minutes. Yes, that running time is correct – the film slugs in at a hair over two and a half hours, but the premise and scripting is delivered in what can only be described as an Oscar-worthy manner. The subject matter is confronting, haunting even, and as a parent it’s the kind of thing you have nightmares over, but as a film, it is utterly terrific.


How far would you go?

I was prepared to think little of Prisoners, a film I’d heard little about prior to watching, even though the named cast looked pretty solid on paper. Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard teaming up to solve the mystery of their daughters’ disappearance? Throw in Maria Bello, an uber-creepy Paul Dano, and Oscar winning Melissa Leo and you have me hooked already. Prisoners comes along at the perfect time for a kidnapping story, really, given the public reception given to the 2013 Ariel Castro case, where three young girls were found alive after being snatched nearly a decade previous; this film never associates with that story, and neither should it, but as an emotional touchstone for those watching, it’s hard not to think about the reality, while appreciating this fiction. The snatching of children, especially, makes most adults cringe in fear – what if it was your child, how far would you go to get them back? To what level would you stoop to find them, make them safe again? These are only some of the questions Prisoners throws up, as its horrible, horrible story unfolds like a slowly wrung wet towel of emotional torture. Prisoners isn’t an easy film to watch (how could it be, really?) and it asks – nay, demands – a lot of those who settle down to watch it. Dark, dank and most assuredly depressing for the majority of its 150 minutes, it would be easy to dismiss this film as “just another crime thriller”, throw it on the pile and leave it there. Yet, as much as I was prepared to be dismissive of it, Prisoners is one out of the box. It’s fantastic.

Now before you get all scratchy-clawy on me, how bot we sit for a chat?
Now before you get all scratchy-clawy on me, how bot we sit for a chat?

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a deeply religious man running a struggling carpentry business in Pennsylvania. His wife, Grace (Maria Bello), son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) are invited to spend Thanksgiving night at their nearby neighbors, the Birch family. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) have two daughters, the eldest Eliza (Zoe Borde) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). As their evening progresses, Anna and Joy return to the Dover’s house; they never make it, for when Keller and Grace arrive home, the two girls are nowhere to be found. Fearing the worst, Keller calls the police, and local detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) attends the scene. The chief suspect is the driver of an old RV spotted nearby over the day, and when the police locate it, they take the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) into custody. However, Alex has the mental capacity of a 10-year old, leaving the police no choice but to release him after no evidence of a crime is found. Keller, confronting Alex at the police station, find that the man does indeed know about the kidnappings, and imprisons him inside a room at his late fathers’ old home, now abandoned at the edge of town. There, Keller and an unwilling Franklin torture and assault Alex into giving them the location of their daughters. Meanwhile, Detective Loki continues his lines of inquiry into the kidnapping, eventually locating another suspect; as Alex’s life hangs in the balance, Keller tries to gain information from the man’s mother, Holly (Melissa Leo), who is apparently none-the-wiser as to her adopted son’s activities.

I'm sorry ma'am, but your husband is indeed the man who dropped out of the Iron Man franchise because of money.
I’m sorry ma’am, but your husband is indeed the man who dropped out of the Iron Man franchise because of money.

The central conceit to Prisoners is undoubtedly Keller Dover’s unlawful imprisonment, and torture of, a suspect in his daughters kidnapping. In black and white, this scenario is wrong in so many ways, and civil libertarians would cry foul were the film to try and portray this as any kind of justification for violent vigilantism. Prisoners doesn’t try and make what Keller does seem right, or wrong, it simply portrays the situation as a desperate father trying to find his daughter, the only way he can. Yet is forces us to ask ourselves: how far would we go, what level of inhumane behavior would we stoop to, in order to save the life of a loved one? Frankly, the question disturbs me, because I hate to think of what I would do were I in a similar scenario; it’s scary because I don’t think I’d be able to restrain myself either. A core issue in any kidnapping is the helplessness of those left behind – the families of people missing, taken or lost must go through absolute hell not knowing what has become of their loved one, and I can only imagine the anger, grief and rage that these people might go through.

Avon? I didn't order any Avon!
Avon? I didn’t order any Avon!

Prisoners asks a lot of its audience. This isn’t an easy film to watch. Paul Dano’s character, Alex, is tortured in some of the most brutal ways possible, and it makes for uncomfortable viewing, even in light of the fact that he’s a key suspect in such an ugly case. Which in turn makes us feel uncomfortable, in that we don’t want to see him suffer if only he’d reveal certain information to Keller, in order to stop the violence. Keller’s rage is understandable, even appreciated in some aspects, and it’s this confronting dynamic that makes Prisoners as unsettling as it is. Oh, there’s plenty of other material within this film to make your skin crawl, your blood boil and your head to shake, but that’s the bit that struck a chord with me. Don’t expect an easy watch, here. Prisoners isn’t a friendly, nice, happy-la-de-da film where the good guys triumph and the Bad Guys get their comeuppance with ease – there are no Good or Bad guys here, really, only shades of grey.

You think I'm gonna kiss you? With a lip like that? You're joking!
You think I’m gonna kiss you? With a lip like that? You’re joking!

Speaking of grey, Prisoners is easily one of the most melancholic looking films I’ve seen all year. Draped in drab, grey rain, filmed in what appears to be some kind of torrential downpour that never let up for months, and directed with a steady, sure hand, Prisoners is utterly depressing in a weird kind of mesmerizing way. You just can’t look away, no matter how much you want to. Legendary DP Roger Deakins, the man who lensed O Brother Where Art Thou, The Shawshank Redemption and 2012’s Skyfall, gives this film a dark, menacing visual palette that soaks up all color and drains away all hope – accentuating the story superbly – and I think it’s some of his best work yet. The director, Canadian born Denis Villeneuve, provides the solid script and polished acting with a terrific canvas on which to perform; this film is slow, but never boring, menacing without being overt, and thrilling without any action sequences. Violence is portrayed as an ugly thing, it’s never glossed over or made to “look cool”, it simply is what it is. The pacing, something younger viewers will no doubt have a problem with here, allows the story to breathe and the characters to develop, which is sorely needed considering the anguished depths they must descend to in order to convey this narrative’s emotional angst. Prisoners never feels slow or drawn out, however, meaning Villeneuve has done a superb job of capturing your brain fully for the few hours he has with it.

Oh, and Robin Williams wants his Mrs Doubtfire costume back.
Oh, and Robin Williams wants his Mrs Doubtfire costume back.

The cast are all excellent, especially Hugh Jackman, who provides the raw beating heart of the story as the angry, frustrated father who has no control over his daughters disappearance. Jackman provides Keller with a tangible reality, rather than just a Furious Father hell-bent on revenge, making his characters actions somewhat… I hesitate to use the word “acceptable”, but it’s somehow appropriate, considering. I know I’m no good at predicting these things, but Jackman’s work here is of Oscar caliber, make no mistake. Co-stars Jake Gyllenhall, as Detective Loki, and Terrence Howard, as Keller’s neighbor and friend, are dynamite – Gyllenhall especially – providing ample counterbalance to Jackman’s powerful performance. Gyllenhaal makes Loki a dedicated, driven Detective, who doesn’t give up even when he feels like he probably should; the character isn’t written with any glamor or attitude to him, he’s just an ordinary man doing the best he can under horrible circumstances. While Jackman and Gyllenhaal have limited screen time together, they both carry this thing nearly equally, as opposing forces working toward a common goal. Maria Bello is solid yet underwritten as Keller’s wife, as is Viola Davis as Franklin’s, while Paul Dano is extra-creepy here as Alex. Melissa Leo once again provides a chameleon-like performance as Alex’s mother, softly spoken yet weirdly menacing all at the same time, as if there’s something “off” about her that doesn’t quite jibe through the movie. You could throw a blanket across the entire cast and not find a poor showing here, and the film is the better for it.

Come near my trailer again, Dano, and I'll clock you one!
Come near my trailer again, Dano, and I’ll clock you one!

I found myself comparing (perhaps unfairly) this film to another recent crime thriller I watched, the Nic Cage flick The Frozen Ground, which has essentially a similar plotline save for the torture of a suspect in a crime. Comparing films is a fast road to an argument (no argument there, I might add) but what struck me most about this, and about Frozen Ground, is that regardless of whether a story is based in truth or not (Prisoners is entirely a fiction, but it could very well not be), the primary motivator for a successful crime flick is either the characters, or the mystery. Prisoners has both these things working in its favor. The mystery (did Alex do it, or not?) and the characters (Keller’s hopeless flailing about in search of answers, Gyllenhaals desire to see this thing through) are well written and superbly filmed, ensuring the quality of the film overall is as high as possible.

God this Scandinavian porn is awesome!
God this Scandinavian porn is awesome!

Is Prisoners an Oscar-worthy film? Hard to say, although I’d certainly give it a few dollars each way to take home an Acting gong for Jackman; I hardly think the Academy will reward a film about a kidnapping, although they did give it to a silent film only a few years ago. Whether it strikes a blow during award season, or misses out, Prisoners is a near faultless crime thriller that lives, breathes and bleeds for its characters and its story. And that, my friends, makes it a winner in my book.






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5 thoughts on “Movie Review – Prisoners (2013)

  1. Actually, Prisoners is only nominated for Best Cinematography, so it surely won't win in any actors' category or best picture. In my opinion, it would have definitely deserved some more nominations. Unlike you, I did expect a lot from it, since a bunch of other people who didn't expect a lot of it were happily surprised. Still, my expectations were met completely, I loved the way the story evolved and kept twisting itself and loved all of the performances.

    1. Thanks Mette – I probably should have pointed out that this review was written well before the Oscar nominations were released; it's a shame this one wasn't up for more awards, because I truly think it's one of the best (and most underrated, obviously) of 2013! Jackman is superb here, better even than he was in Les Miserables, which is saying something. Thanks for stopping by!

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