Mark’s Movies — ‘Prisoners’ could be a contender

By on September 21, 2013

I must confess, I wasn’t particularly looking forward to seeing Prisoners. I go to movies more as an escape than a confrontation, so I have to be in a certain type of contemplative mood to see films concerned with a heavier sort of subject matter. Alas, as a film critic, duty calls, and sometimes you get stuck with films you might not necessarily want to see because there’s nothing else to review that week, as was the case here.

There are few subjects harder to take than a child in peril, to the point where even my favorite genre, horror, pointedly avoids it like the plague. Mind you, horror isn’t the most respected genre in the world of film, so that’s saying something. I guess one of the things I loved about it when I was a kid was the fact that kids were never really in danger. It was always the teens and the adults, you know?

Think about it. Go back and watch some of the Friday the 13th or Halloween movies. There are scenes in there when kids are ripe for the picking and the killers are just like…pass. Even the basest of genres rarely go there, and that goes for animals, too, at least to a slightly lesser degree. Well, fair warning, Prisoners goes there with both children and animals.

In fact, the film starts out with the brutal slaying of an animal, so you PETA types might want to show up a hair late, though there’s more animal abuse later on in the film, so be wary of pretty much any scenes with animals, period. I will say that, to the film’s credit, there’s a reason for both of those scenes, so they’re not just there for shock value alone.

Actually, there’s not a lot going on in Prisoners that isn’t for a reason, though you may not see the forest for the trees until the picture comes fully into view. The film is as much a portrait of what some people are capable of when pushed too far as it is one of the evil that some people are capable of, period, whether pushed too far or not.

The film is all but infused with dread, making it a bit of a tough watch, to be sure, but a worthwhile one. It revolves around what happens when two little girls are kidnapped out of the blue, and the lengths certain parents go to in order to bring them back safely, as well as the local police assigned to the case. The main characters are Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), the fathers of the kids in question; and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the man in charge of investigating the kidnapping.

Rounding out the cast are Maria Bello and Viola Davis as the mothers of the girls in question; Paul Dano as the main suspect, Alex Jones; and Melissa Leo as Jones’ mother. Each of these people are affected in different ways, and victimized in different ways, some from the horrific nature of the crime committed, and others from the fallout of said crime.

For instance, the film clearly posits Alex as an obvious culprit, but is he? He certainly fits the profile: creepy, bespectacled loner trolling around in a decrepit RV who never seems to have a straight answer for anything. But is it because he’s guilty or simply slow- as in mentally impaired?

The film really keeps you guessing to that end, and when Keller snaps, you can completely understand why, especially given the circumstances- and not without good reason, I might add. Taking matters into his own hands, he kidnaps Jones and proceeds to torture him for answers, with the somewhat reluctant aid of Franklin. But is Jones actually guilty? Does Keller go too far? The film offers no easy answers for that, but it sure does ratchet up the suspense as it goes on.

I went in expecting a little bit of Taken, and perhaps a dollop of Ransom, but the movie isn’t interested in going over the top like those films. It’s much more methodical, taking a similar approach to something like Zodiac or The Silence of the Lambs. It is a bit poky at times, and perhaps could have withstood a bit more editing to tighten things up more, but overall, there’s rarely a false note hit here, especially in terms of meeting audience expectations.

Though I figured out certain things earlier in the film than the characters, I still didn’t entirely predict the outcome, which is pretty unnerving, and which most people likely won’t see coming. In other words, the film keeps you guessing right up to the end, which is always the sign of a job well done, in my experience.

The cast is fantastic across the board, with a never-better Jackman, and a solid-as-always Gyllenhall. It was also interesting to see a more subtle, somewhat docile performance from Howard, who usually plays the tough guy in most of the films I’ve seen him in, such as Hustle and Flow and the Iron Man movies. He clearly has mixed feelings about Jackman’s character’s methods; with his wife, as played by Davis, providing the unexpected support when he wavers. Bello, as the other mother, also paints a dramatic picture of a woman completely unraveling in the face of the worst kind of emotional trauma.

Perhaps the strongest performance, however, comes from Dano, who perfectly straddles the line between shady and sympathetic. I genuinely had no idea at any given time whether he was legitimately innocent or, at the very least, in on it somehow. His behavior and actions are maddeningly vague and keep you wondering what this guy’s deal really is. The ultimate answer to that question does not disappoint, to say the least.

This is the sort of film that I like to call a thinker. As in, you’ll think about what’s going on while it’s happening, but you’ll also continue thinking about it long after you leave the theater. It may work the nerves, but you won’t be complaining after it’s all over. Even the title has a double meaning. And that ending! In a word, perfection. The film itself maybe could have used a little judicious editing, as it clocks in at about two-and-half-hours, but that ending is pitch perfect.

Oscar season is just heating up, and there’s definitely some stiff competition on down the line, but Prisoners is Academy Award bait if I ever saw it. It might be a bit on the dark side, but it’s nothing if not a gripping experience. I can’t imagine it not getting at least a few nods, especially in the acting department. As such, I’m going to give this one a solid A. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s a worthwhile one.

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About Mark Trammell

Mark Trammell is the resident entertainment critic at UAB, the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where he is also a Graduate Student and does a vid-cast movie review show. He is a life-long fan of films and has a pretty whacked-out, all-over-the-place movie collection that would give most sane people pause. He loves horror movies and Disney flicks and isn't entirely sure there is a difference. He one day hopes to put his money where his mouth is and inflict his own perverse vision on society, entirely so that he can tell people who ask: "If you think you can do better, why don't you make a movie yourself?" to shut up.
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