Review: Prisoners (2013)

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Directed by – Denis Villeneuve
Written by – Aaron Guzilowski
Starring – Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette & Terrence Howard

A few years ago a Bristolian man – Chris Jefferies – saw his name dragged through the mud by the media when he was wrongly accused of strangling a young woman – Joanna Yeates – to death. The journalistic circus that followed saw Jefferies branded a “weirdo” by a number of national tabloids; the implication being he’s weird so he’s probably guilty. “Witnesses” were brought in to speak out against Jefferies, and the man’s unusual, unkempt appearance was considered more than enough proof that he was responsible for the murder of Miss Yeates. It was only months later, when it became apparent that Jefferies had absolutely nothing to do with Yeates’ death, that the vicious media scrum backed down.

The reason I mention this is because the manner in which Prisoners – the new thriller from director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Enemy) – played out reminded me very much of the Chris Jefferies saga. The film tells the tale of two young girls who disappear during Thanksgiving. The obvious suspect is Alex Jones (Dano; Looper, There Will Be Blood), a strange, socially awkward young man with the IQ of a ten-year old, whose presence in the film is designed to make both the characters and the audience feel awkward. Keller Dover (Jackman; X-Men, Australia), the father of one of the girls, becomes convinced that Jones is guilty, ignoring the arguments of Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal; Source Code, Jarhead), the officer in charge of the case, and decides to go to extreme lengths to get his daughter back. The film then follows the double investigations of Dover and Loki as both of them attempt to find the girls before the unthinkable happens to them.

Prisoners is bleak, and unremittingly so, and part of its appeal is that it never gives the audience much of a break. The audience is invited, nay forced, to suffer the same blender of emotions that each of the girls’ parents is experiencing as a result of the film’s relentlessly morbid pessimism. The subject matter doesn’t exactly open itself to happiness or joy but Prisoners is a film that seems so conscious of its bleakness that it sometimes becomes irritating and overbearing. That’s not to say that it isn’t a solid film; as thrillers go, Prisoners is taut, exciting and intricately crafted, and it toys with the same moral quandaries that you might expect to find in a nineties thriller, albeit with a little bit more subtlety.

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It’s been quite a while since I’ve seen a thriller quite as mysterious as Prisoners, and Villeneuve’s direction is so confident and assured that he is able to trick the audience quite easily, while at the same time asking us to consider what we would do if we were in Keller’s shoes. The central theme of the film appears to be “do the ends ever justify the means?” and it’s nice to find a film that doesn’t give you a definitive answer to this question. Nobody in the film is innocent, not even Loki whose devotion to his job causes him to act blindly and irrationally, and this grants the characters a complexity that the thriller genre has been lacking for oh so very long.

The big strength of the film, however, rests in the performances of its three main stars. Jackman is brilliant as the man who will do anything to find his daughter and he tackles the moral dilemma that his character represents quite effortlessly. Of all the characters it is Keller who we are most drawn to. He’s vicious and violent and we can never quite trust him yet it’s impossible to shake the feeling that we’d do the same if we were in his position. Gyllenhaal, by contrast, delivers a much subtler performance, yet one that is just as complex and fractured. Each character represents a different shade of the moral grey area and both men – neither of whom I’ve ever thought of as great actors – really do knock it out of the park. It’s Dano who steals the show though. His performance as Alex is the foundation off which the others are able to bounce and give the film its emotional core.

Prisoners isn’t perfect and, in its bid to be as bleak as possible, it sometimes threatens to descend into parody. Furthermore, for what it is it is far too long and could do with a trim to neaten out its rougher edges. Nevertheless, despite this the film is consistently engaging and the final act provides a conclusion to the story that is more than satisfactory. The descent into contrivance is mostly avoided and the film – for better or for worse – sticks to its bleakness rather doggedly which, despite my reservations, is something I found quite refreshing. There’s no backing down here; Prisoners wants to get under your skin and remain there until long after the credits have rolled, which is exactly what it does.

With so many turgid, uninspiring thrillers infesting our screens at the moment, it’s nice to see one that takes the genre back to its roots. I don’t think Prisoners is a masterpiece but when you compare it to the competition it’s up against, it’s not too far off…

★★★½

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