WRITTEN BY: Aaron Guzikowski
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
I’m a little late to the praise party for Prisoners, so you’ve probably already read reviews claiming this is the best film of the year, or that it is an incredibly tense film, and it will make you question life as you know it. My version of that would be that Prisoners is easily the best film of the year (so far), a clear Oscar contender, with career best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. It is a relentless film, consistently edge of your seat, with several twists and turns to keep you guessing.
Keller (Jackman) and his wife (Bello) and son (Minnette) take their daughter to their neighbors for Thanksgiving. The neighbors (Howard and Davis) have a daughter the same age (and an older daughter their sons age). They have a grand Thanksgiving together, laughing and playing around. When the day comes to a close, Keller realizes the two little girls are nowhere to be found. The son mentions having seen an RV outside the house earlier, and the police investigation begins. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is introduced as a badass detective who has a 100% arrest record. He is relentless on his pursuit of justice, and interrogates the heck out of the RV owner, Alex (Dano), only to come to the realization that Alex is too stupid to have done this on his own, and a lack of evidence leaves Loki looking for other suspects.
That isn’t a good enough answer for Keller, who believes Alex took his daughter. So he kidnaps Alex and locks him in an abandoned house. His plan is to torture the answer out of Alex until he tells him where the girls are. Loki continues to investigate every possible angle, and everything is relevant. It is great to see the puzzle pieces laid out over two and a half hours, and they all fit together in the end. Some puzzle pieces aren’t revealed until the last moment, but when they are, you’ll appreciate it. I can’t really address the ending of the film, because it would give away a lot, but there were groans in my theatre. I completely understand the ending, and it was a necessary ending. The film leaves you thinking your own thoughts about whether or not Keller’s actions are OK, and doesn’t answer it for you. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll realize that had the film progressed further, it would have needed to make a decision. Instead, you can draw your own conclusion with everything else wrapped up for you.
Yes, the film does have a conclusion. You will know what happened by the end of the film. That is one of the brilliant aspects, is how the pieces come together. If the film left you hanging, it would all be for nothing. As far as the performances, Jackman is fantastic as a father who will do literally anything for his daughter, and walks a very thin line between losing his sanity and losing his soul. You will have your own thoughts about Keller by the end of the film, and I guarantee each person will have a different opinion. Gyllenhaal has never been better than as Loki. He hits this film hard. He’s a relentless detective who pushes boundaries to get results. It’s a departure for Gyllenhaal, who usually plays quiet characters, and is generally stereotyped as a “nice guy”. Loki is a good guy, for sure, but he’s not very nice.
In supporting roles, the entire cast is great. As a standout, I would say Paul Dano is probably dangerously underrated as Alex. He turns in a performance almost entirely void of dialogue, except for some sporadic mumbling, and tells his entire story through his eyes. Special props to Melissa Leo for playing Alex’s aunt. I love how she effortlessly immerses herself into every role, as if she is almost unrecognizable. She’s like Meryl Streep, but the underground version of her.
Prisoners is a must-see film. It’s the film everyone will be talking about, and the film that people will remember come Oscar time. It stays with you, leaving you to draw your own conclusions about how far you would go for your own children. I’m sure parents who saw this movie are holding their own children just a little bit closer afterward.
FINAL GRADE: A