Mark Reviews Movies

Prisoners (2013)


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Wayne Duvall, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons

MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout)

Running Time: 2:33

Release Date: 9/20/13

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Review by Mark Dujsik | September 20, 2013

Prisoners takes a harrowing scenario—the disappearance and likely abduction to two young girls—and makes it fodder for a mystery in which the workings of the plot trump all else. It's a puzzle and one in which all of the pieces are lying out in the open, waiting for the characters to piece them together.

They don't do so organically, either. Things come together when the screenplay necessitates that the characters find the connections to move the story forward or keep another machination from falling apart too soon. The result is that the characters who populate Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay are not portrayed as fully formed people worthy of our understanding beyond the terrible circumstances of the scenario. Instead, they are merely agents who move from one point to the next—their actions dictated by obligation to the plot.

This focus might be easier to forgive if not for the fact that Prisoners attempts to reach deeper—to make the struggles and decisions of the characters resonate beyond the incidents of the story and, through them, to represent the sense of helplessness, the anger, and the need for resolution that comes from such an awful situation. Guzikowski's characters, however, are not up to that challenge. They are essentially two-dimensional creations whose central characteristics are governed by events; their two sides are defined by pre-disappearance idealism and post-disappearance misery with nothing in between. In fact, the change in one character is so drastic and so loaded to make the movie's central argument that he becomes, quite paradoxically, the least interesting of the bunch.

On Thanksgiving, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is out with his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) hunting deer for the upcoming meal, praying in the lead up to the fatal shot, and offering fatherly advice about rough times sometimes leading a man to being the only thing between himself and death. His wife Grace (Maria Bello) and daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) are happy, as are their neighbors Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis) and their daughters Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) and Eliza (Zoe Soul), and this is the extent of these characters' depth before Anna and Joy go missing a few hours into the Thanksgiving celebration at the Birches' home.

Surely, Ralph suggests, a strange RV that had been parked down the block earlier has something to do with his sister's disappearance, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a lonely but determined investigator (We know this because he's celebrating the holiday alone at a Chinese restaurant and blinks like he never sleeps), receives a call that the vehicle has been found outside a gas station. The occupant, one Alex Jones (Paul Dano) tries to flee from the police, so Loki and Keller, who quickly becomes quite critical of the detective's effectiveness, believe this is the man behind the abductions.

As it turns out, Alex has the mental capacity of a child, has no evidence against him, and is released. With time working against them, Loki begins to search for other suspects, while Keller, unconvinced that Alex is innocent, decides to begin his own brutal line of questioning for young man, whom he keeps locked up in an abandoned apartment building.

Guzikowski teases with some potentially intriguing ideas in between the point-A-to-point-B plotting, particularly with the thought that Keller's extra-judicial activity might hinder Loki's ability to find the man's daughter (Jackman's passionate performance is the only thing keeping us from despising him), but the screenplay does not follow through on them. Instead, Keller's interference is just another game—a cheap series of close calls in which Loki comes close to learning the truth only to be thwarted. Similarly, the movie is often on the verge of plunging into the darkness and despair, but in those moments when it peers out into the abyss, the movie always pulls back, giving us yet another discovery to get back to the mystery. Even the movie's sole venture into the moral morass, in which Keller becomes the exact type of person that he most fears has his daughter, turns out to be a requirement for the movie's blunt thematic concern—that those wronged by the ills of others can and, in the wrongheaded statement of a character late in the movie (a really strained motive behind the crime), will perpetrate evil of their own.

The theory, by the way, is contradicted by at least three other characters, who either have no knowledge of Keller's wrongdoing or, when confronted by the extremity of it, turn their back on it (Even in their limited roles, all of them, especially Franklin and Nancy, are more sympathetic and complex than Keller). These are contradictions brought about by broad treatment that would rather sensationalize than have the patience to sympathize (Take the random snakes that turn up at the scene of an orgy of evidence).

None of the characters or the playing with moral questions really matters in the end. It's entirely about the machinery of the plot, and by the third act of Prisoners, the gears become so frustratingly transparent that even the mystery grows tedious.

Copyright © 2013 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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