Sunday, September 29, 2013


This is not a fun little family movie full of color and laughs.  "Prisoners" is instead a rough and brutal movie about people pushed to the breaking point, families enduring nightmare scenarios, and the viscous brutality unleashed by such stress even in generally good people.  Usually I bemoan movies that take themselves far too seriously, offering bitter drama without laughs or much joy, but "Prisoners" may be the first film I've reviewed on this blog that is utterly stark and utterly grim, and is appropriate for it.  This is drama at its most intense, completely unpleasant and desperate, and a truly well-made film.

The plot involves two little girls of a White and Black family disappearing during a friendly mixed-racial Thanksgiving feast, vanishing into the grey air of the Pennsylvania suburbs.  This launches a week-long search for the girls, bringing their families to absolute desperation, to the point they will do anything to find their lost children.  For two and a half hours you watch as these parents walk through a weeping winter sky, following up on leads, and eventually committing horrible acts themselves to follow up on the only lead they have.  The threads and twists of this thriller expand slowly leaving you to wonder just how far these characters are going to go, "how desperate can they become?".  Two and a half hours is an abusively-long running time, but perhaps an appropriate one, as these parents themselves suffer the endless march forward, with the clear knowledge that every passing day makes their daughters' demise more and more certain.  Which only pushes them further, to do even worse things.

Most thrillers are based around a time limit.  A cackling villain has the children locked in a vat of acid and if the police do not solve twelve riddles in three days, the girls' die.  Within that time limit, the story twists and turns, but inevitably its all about fun action and rising tension.  "Prisoners" has no limit, there is no villain giving away enigmatic clues over the phone, teasing the lead detective.  It is just snow falling on another day, while people keep going further down the road to madness.

Hugh Jackman is definitely the man needed to lead up this particular drama.  He is giving one of the best performances of his career here, utterly intense from beginning to end.  You really feel in his actions that he is a man absolutely crippled by the kidnapping of his daughter, and that he would do anything to regain control.  Jackman doesn't quite disappear into the role, you can still see the same man who once diced up Yakuza earlier this summer as Wolverine, but his utter helplessness even as a very strong man built upon action is clear.  Eventually the lead suspects turns out to be a deeply mentally disabled man (played by Paul Dano), who has the mind of a ten-year-old and is incapable of understanding direct questions.  When Dano's character gives a brief hint that he might know more than he does, but is let go by the police anyway, the lead father does the unthinkable.  He locks away the suspect into an abandoned building, where he tortures Paul Dano for days.

What makes "Prisoners" a really smart thriller is that ultimately it doesn't really have much of a strong moral judgment upon Hugh Jackman's actions.  Some far more idiotic thrillers, such as "Law Abiding Citizen", feature a father of a murdered family going a warring rampage of revenge which is supposed to be sympathetic and heroic against corruption* and yet somehow a villain also.  Hugh Jackman's moral descent here is for the most sympathetic of reasons - the ultimate adult fear -  but its also so clearly ambiguous.  You can't be sure if he's pushing against the one hope he might have or is torturing an innocent child in an delusional attempt to feel in control.  Even the character himself is aware of the moral tightrope he's walking, unable to finish the Lord's Prayer while putting Paul Dano through simply monstrous torment.  Eventually even the character himself seems aware that he's gone too far, but he's reached such a point where he has no choice but to keep going, to keep drawing blood, or else all of it has been for nothing.

The entire film, of course, is not two hours of Paul Dano suffering, but features a large cast of very strong actors.  The other main lead is Jake Gyllenhaal as the lead detective on the case, handling the situation with a mixture of obsession and professional exasperation.  He's dealing with a very difficult case, but also parents of the victims who seem out of control.  His boss is basically an incompetent bureaucrat making every stupid mistake you can imagine.  Gyllenhaal isn't quite as well-developed as Jackman, but he makes for a more level-headed and morally pure center, going through a case with plenty of twists and turns in a great maze of thriller developments.

"Prisoners" is not a perfect film, I'll concede.  At two and a half hours, it is slightly too long.  And ultimately for a film that strives so much for a bitter realism, the final villain is pulpy and ridiculous.  This was not the kind of movie that should have ended with a nonsense one-dimensional maniac babbling about God, and yet it does.  Either way though, this is a solid movie, featuring strong performances on all fronts, and a very gritty dark story that is well-earned.  It will never be my favorites, simply because I prefer my movies to be more charming and fun than resoundingly bitter.  But this is a movie you have to respect, truly well-done work.

* Corruption in that film being that modern America has a legal system at all.  It is a very stupid film.

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