Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent's worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimowich), is missing, together with her young friend, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) but a lack of evidence means his release. As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child's life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands, dragging his friend and neighbour (Terrence Howard) reluctantly with him.
Review by Louise Keller:
Blurring the lines between the hero and the perpetrator compounds the tension in this multi-layered and complex psychological thriller that will keep you anchored to your seat, as the narrative weaves through unexpected territory. Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay is disarmingly good in that it does not follow the predictable path but constantly keeps us off balance as the emphasis changes and the plot ventures into high risk territory.
The film relies on our acceptance of the changing moral code and behaviour of Hugh Jackman's God-respecting family man to one who is capable of anything, and it is credit to Jackman, who ably convinces us that good men sometimes do bad things. Succinct at handling potent emotions, director Denis Villeneuve (Icendies, 2010) captures all the angst and intensity of a crisis in which the unthinkable occurs; the unravelling of events echoed by an effective and ominous monotonic soundscape.
The striking opening scene set in a remote, snowy forest, where a single deer is seen between the barren trees, is one that we do not easily forget. The first words we hear are that of the Lord's Prayer. Jackman's Keller Dover is teaching his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) to be a man. The lesson is: be prepared. But it is impossible to be prepared for what is about to occur - the disappearance of two little girls, one being Dover's daughter. Like the mood, the weather turns. There's a tangible chill in the air: rain falls, thunder booms and sleet offers danger of slipping. The characters too, are symbolically in jeopardy of slipping.
Jackman towers strongly as the distraught father who takes justice into his own hands, managing the nuances of gentleness, decisiveness, anger and violence with great skill. This role is not unlike that of his first screen role in Erskineville Kings (1999). Jake Gyllenhaal delivers what is perhaps his best performance yet as Detective Loki, who may have solved his every case, but finds himself caught up in the whirlwind of emotions surrounding him. As Dover's friend, Terrence Howard has plenty to convey as he becomes complicit in the desperate plan, while Viola Davis humanises anger and desperation with several highly compelling scenes. Maria Bello plays Dover's wife whose inability to cope relies on pills to block the pain of loss.
There are more questions than answers. Did Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the simpleton in the white RV, abduct the girls? Is Dover right in his assumptions? Who is Bob Taylor (David Dastmalchian), the hooded man and why is he obsessed with mazes? And who are the prisoners? Both Dano and Dastmalchian are excellent, as is Melissa Leo as Alex's formerly devout aunt who has waged a war on God. The little girls at the centre of the story are also important and Villeneuve elicits the best from Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons.
This is a taut and powerful film about people in crisis. The tension never lets up and its strength is that we are taken into the action with the characters and allowed to understand their motives. Such is the intensity, there is hardly time to take a breath and as the pieces of the puzzle finally begin to fit and the revelation of the whole picture emerges. Intense, potent, superb.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Here's a chance for Hugh Jackman to show some more of his range (especially for those who haven't seen his feature debut, Erskineville Kings), as the embattled and ethically conflicted father desperate to find his missing little daughter. His Keller Dover is a deeply religious man - a key to the motives of the kidnappers. The concept of a band of people 'waging war' against god by luring his faithful into behaving in decidedly un-Christian, nay, devilish ways gives the film its propulsive fuel. It's good v evil on steroids.
But that wouldn't be enough without all the other elements that make up this ever-intense, high voltage thriller. Of course, two cute little girls missing believed kidnapped is a powerful starter, but the screenplay maintains an elusive pattern of twists to keep us on the edge. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, responsible for the outstanding drama Incindies (2010), does well to manage the complex but accessible story, and gets the best out of his A list cast.
Leading the police investigation is Detective Loki, brought to life (complete with a small eye-shutter tick to add a unique touch) by Jake Gyllenhaal; it's as a showcase for how to deliver a fresh version of the oft-seen intuitive and individualistic detective figure.
Paul Dano rises to the challenge of Alex Jones, the damaged young man at the centre of suspicion who bears the brunt of Keller's brutal determination. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are both superb as Joy's (Kyla Drew Simmons), parents, who are as traumatised as Keller and his wife Grace (Maria Bello). Melissa Leo, playing Alex's aunt, is at her usual knockout best in a complex role which has an unexpected dimension. All the other supports are first class, to the smallest walk-on role.
Roger Deakins handles the camera and the lighting with tremendous skill and Jóhann Jóhannsson's score is nuanced yet powerful.
Some of the moral issues can be seen as confronting - or at least thought provoking, and they add to the texture of the film, without judgement. Nor does the resolution offend the religious or pander to the non-believers; nice balance.
Although it's quite long at 2 1/2 hours, Prisoners holds interest and tension thanks to the strength of the screenplay and craftsmanship of the cast and crew. Be warned: you will not want to take a bathroom break during the film, so go before.
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CAST: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Dylan Minnette, King, Len Cariou, Erin Gerasimowich
PRODUCER: Kira Davis, Broderick Johnson, Adam Kolbrenner, Andrew A. Kosove
DIRECTOR: Denis Villeneuve
SCRIPT: Aaron Guzikowski
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Roger A. Deakins
EDITOR: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
MUSIC: Jóhann Jóhannsson
PRODUCTION DESIGN: Patrice Vermette
RUNNING TIME: 153 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: October 17, 2013