Prisoners (2013) (R)

"Prisoners" is a movie that could have lost its way near the beginning. This film has many scenes, many characters, and much dialogue—in essence, a great many places to mess up. But director Denis Villeneuve handles the movie so deftly and with such class that it left me asking: why have I never heard of this man? The Canadian film maker has made several critically acclaimed films, but they have all slipped beneath my radar...then he made this film. "Prisoners" is the kind of movie that introduces a director to the popular world and to America.
The story is simple: on a cold Thanksgiving afternoon, two girls are playing—then they vanish. Two families were spending the holiday together and when the eating was done, their daughters went off to play. Where did they go?
In this way, "Prisoners" resembles many other movies before it such as "Mystic River" or "The Silence of the Lambs"; but let me be clear: this is its own movie.
It becomes a race against the clock as the families scramble to find their children. The police are brought in, but minds have already begun to fracture under the stress. The abduction is only the first step in a long and twisted plot. 
We delve into the minds of the fathers and mothers: Keller and Grace Dover (played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and the incredible Viola Davis) as they deal with the disappearance of their girls.
The beginning of the film establishes the harmony, the peace—and then disrupts it. Thanksgiving is such a family oriented holiday; it's the most perfectly twisted setting for this film.
The aura of the film is tangible—rainy, snowy, gloomy—and it sucks you into its world.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) becomes assigned to the case and is determined to find the two girls and bring them back to their families safely.
As time wears on, Keller Dover becomes more and more impatient. As his impatience rises, so does his irrationality and temper. A growingly unstable force, he decides to take matters into his own hands; blurring ethical and moral lines and he does.
The film is sleek and looks great—it introduces new characters with no expected cliches and so stylishly that you don't realize how many people you have to keep track's very impressive in that way. A simple shot of a man's back that slowly zooms in, Hitchcock style, gives way to Detective Loki. Then we have radio noise, signaling a life, which ends up introducing two more characters.
"Prisoners" may begin too soon. We don't have any time to empathize with the girls...but as the movie played out I realized that it wasn't about the girls—it's about their families.
The cinematography is incredibly simple, but radically effective. "Prisoners" is filmed with wide angles and steady zooms, affirming its reality. It could have gone David Fincher, certainly it has the possibility. But Fincher would have gone crazy with this film (I still would have probably liked it) while Denis Villeneuve shows excellent restraint.
Keller is a Christian man; he recites the Lord's Prayer before he shoots deer, he keeps crucifixes around, and he prays regularly. But this is the man that we are supposed to dislike the most, and I have no problem in doing so. Some might think the film is too harsh—not so, it's actually quite subtle in its character establishment.
So let's be honest: I really hated Hugh Jackman in this movie. That being said, I think he was the best actor for the role. His sheer size is intimidating: he's a big guy. Now add Jackman's screamy tendencies to a character that is mad with desperation for his lost daughter and you've got a pretty good psychopath. It's a role that is good but (rightfully so) will most likely go unloved at the Oscars. Though it had its critics, Jackman is twice as good in "Les Misérables".
The rest of the cast is rounded out by Paul Dano—who seems to take a page out of Stanley Tucci and Sean Penn's book for his role...he's quite good—and Melissa Leo, comfortable and great as ever on screen.
But as far as the acting goes, it's completely stolen by Jake Gyllenhaal. As Detective Loki, he is astonishingly good. I wouldn't be surprised to see him getting awards for this movie, he deserves it.
Boiling it down, there is nothing original about this movie. It's been told before in many ways. But Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski breathe new life into a story like this.
It's suspenseful and frightening in all the right places. "Prisoners" is not afraid of making the viewer wait, it gives scenes more power in doing so.
"Prisoners" is not a perfect movie, but its look and Gyllenhaal's performance make it just short of terrific.

Score: 4 out of 4 stars

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