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In Theaters: PRISONERS (2013)

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PRISONERS
(US - 2013)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve.  Written by Aaron Guzikowski.  Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Len Cariou, Wayne Duvall, David Dastmalchian, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons.  (R, 153 mins)

PRISONERS, the English-language debut of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES), is a riveting but frequently frustrating thriller that suffers from its own lofty ambitions.  Scripted by Aaron Guzikowski (CONTRABAND), it works very well as a thriller, but doesn't seem content with just being a thriller.  It wants to make big statements and grand proclamations, but doesn't really do anything with them.  When it focuses on being a "movie," which is what it does most of the time, it's a superbly-crafted genre piece. When it focuses on being a "film," it often succumbs to heavy-handedness.  Villeneuve is an excellent filmmaker, but he comes off as a bit of a snob. I get the feeling that he finds multiplex genre fare beneath him and tries to make this more "significant" than it needs to be, starting with its unwieldy and sometimes cumbersome 153-minute running time.  It's never dull, but it probably could've been just as effective at a more streamlined 120 or so minutes.  It's almost as if the film is long so it would be interpreted as "important." 

The film opens with deeply-religious family man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) talking his teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) through his first deer kill with a recitation of the Lord's Prayer.  So, right away, we have religion and guns, and Dover also owns his own small carpentry business.  That, along with his fortifying his basement into a survivalist compound, is essentially informing us that Keller is a guy who probably watches a lot of Fox News.  Keller and his family--there's also wife Grace (Maria Bello) and young daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich)--spend Thanksgiving with their friends the Birches from down the street--Franklin (Terrence Howard), his wife Nancy (Viola Davis), teenage daughter Eliza (Zoe Borde) and young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons).  As the day goes on, Anna and Joy walk down to the Dover house but never make it.  Both disappear and Ralph remembers them playing near a parked RV that's now nowhere to be found.  The police are called, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and some officers find the RV at a truck stop, with mentally-challenged Alex Jones (Paul Dano) behind the wheel.  Alex doesn't have the capacity to answer any questions and with no evidence on him or in the RV, the cops can only hold him for 48 hours.  After Alex is released into the custody of his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo),  Loki starts knocking on the doors of all the sex offenders in the area, trying to find any new potential leads, and inadvertently stumbling on to a second mystery involving a rotting corpse in the basement of a convicted pedophile priest (Len Cariou), as well as a local weirdo (David Dastmalchian) who's frequently observed buying little girl's clothing at a secondhand store. Meanwhile, an enraged Keller is convinced Alex knows where the girls are...so convinced, in fact, that he abducts Alex and holds him captive in a vacant, decrepit apartment building that was left to him by his late father, and proceeds to spend several days brutally and mercilessly beating and torturing him to get the information he wants.


For the most part, Jackman convincingly sells Keller's rage, but there are some scenes where he's a little too over-the-top, and Guzikowski's script makes the daring decision to spend a little time almost attempting to turn Keller into not the villain, but a villain, especially when his own actions start to impede Loki's investigation.  But it's here where the problems start.  It takes people way too long to comment on a high-profile kidnapping suspect going missing for days. And how long does Keller expect to get away with what he's doing when he parks his work truck with his name on the side of it near the abandoned building?  And of course the recovering alcoholic Keller falls off the wagon (with the requisite brown paper bag) and of course Grace disappears into a haze of sleeping pills and anti-depressants as Bello spends most of the remainder of the film asleep in bed. The filmmakers don't spend much time at all addressing the grief of the Birch family, but then, they don't have a patriarch who's paranoid and close to foaming at the mouth even on his best days.  It's by design that Howard's Franklin is supposed to be the voice of reason against Keller's all-consuming quest for Biblical vengeance, but the film sometimes forgets that two families are in pain here.

PRISONERS goes into some unexpectedly dark places for a mainstream, big-studio movie, but I found myself most intrigued by Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki and wished that we learned more about his backstory.  Introduced eating Thanksgiving dinner alone at a Chinese buffet, Loki, with his intense blinking tic, zodiac tats on his knuckles, a Freemason ring and neck tat, and awkwardly-fitting shirts that are at least a size too small, is one of the strangest heroes to come down the pike in a while.  He sometimes lets his inexperience show (he tails Keller at one point, but gets made when he ends up blocking traffic and people start laying on their horns), and he's also dangerously impulsive, has no qualms about telling his captain (Wayne Duvall) what he thinks ("Hey, Captain...why don't you do me a favor and go fuck yourself?"), and is a loner on the force who doesn't seem to interact very well with his colleagues.  We don't learn much about Loki's obviously troubled past other than an offhand remark about spending time in a boys' home.  That, and he seems to really personally dislike Cariou's pedophile priest, so interpret that how you will.  Loki's an odd, fascinating character and we're intentionally kept at a distance with him, yet Gyllenhaal utilizes his skills as an actor to bring added dimensions to him (Gyllenhaal has said in interviews that the blinking tic was his own idea).  It's an awards-caliber performance, and the actor's best since David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece ZODIAC.

PRISONERS doesn't disappoint as a thriller but it's flawed as something "more."  Perhaps it's the kind of film that reveals more layers of itself with repeat viewings, but after one time through, a lot of the ambitions come off as pretensions, and character developments--with the exception of Loki--come to rely too heavily on the clichéd and predictable.  Look at the film's handling of Alex:  it's not enough to say he's weird and has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old.  No, they have to dress him in the most comically-outdated clothing imaginable and give him the most aesthetically unappealing eyeglass frames in the history of cinema.  He makes Napoleon Dynamite look like Justin Timberlake.  Dano is fine in the role but the costume design department went a little overboard with his get-up, turning Alex into a cardboard cutout of a character before Dano can even do anything with it.  Flaws and all, it's still a mostly very good film that should be seen, with Roger Deakins' expectedly excellent cinematography being another standout.



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