Judge Patrick Bromley is a prisoner in his own mind. Whoa...
Every moment matters.
The initial marketing for the 2013 drama Prisoners made me never want to see the movie. It looked like the saddest, bleakest tragedy about kidnapped children and families torn apart ever made, and I have a very low tolerance for that sort of thing (especially since having kids of my own). But Prisoners is not really that movie. Yes, there are kidnapped children and yes it is bleak and dramatic, but it's more of a mystery thriller than any of the trailers let on. If you were avoiding it for the same reasons I was, you need not avoid it any longer. It's a very good film.
Facts of the Case
Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine) is Keller Dover, a carpenter and survivalist raising two kids with his wife (Maria Bello, The Cooler). They go to the home of the Birches (played by Terrence Howard of Movie 43 and Viola Davis of The Help) to celebrate Thanksgiving. The two youngest girls ask to go outside. They do not come back. The police are called, and the unfortunately named Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenaal, Source Code) takes the case. The only lead anyone has is a mysterious camper driven by a man (Paul Dano of The Girl Next Door, ever the creep) who may or may not have been capable of committing a crime. When the cops are forced to let him go for lack of evidence, Keller decides to take matters into his own hands.
That plot summary provides the basic setup of Prisoners, the American filmmaking debut of director Denis Villenueve, and it's everything that's promised in the movie's marketing. As it unfolds, though, the movie takes on a different life, introducing new elements and pushing its characters in unexpected directions. It's easy to imagine a movie studio-friendly version interested only in Keller's choice between damnation and redemption, but that's not this movie. While it certainly raises some moral dilemmas—how far would you be willing to go if it means getting your child back?—it's not all that Prisoners has on its mind, and the movie is richer for it.
In many ways, Prisoners is the movie I feared it would be: grim, grimy, positively allergic to sunshine, constantly carrying the weight of grief in its gut. But Prisoners is also something very different than what I expected. It's not just Mystic River Redux, with Hugh Jackman in full-on INTENSE mode screaming about "MY DAUGHTER!!" It's actually more of a mystery thriller, and a pretty good one for most of its running time. It takes a couple of compelling characters down several seemingly unrelated paths, and it's only when those paths begin to converge that the movie threatens to buckle under the weight of its own coincidence. The fact that both the filmmakers and the actors salvage what could have been a deeply problematic last act is a testament to just how accomplished Prisoners is.
One of the things that's best about Prisoners is that the screenplay (by Aaron Guzikowski, whose only prior credit is Contraband, so let's consider this a big step up) doesn't go overboard with the character exposition. Yes, it is hinted that Keller used to drink, there are multiple references to his survivalist mentality (complete with fully stocked basement) and a number of allusions to his devout faith, but the movie never beats you over the head with any of it. I kept waiting for some mention of the fact that he had done time (all the other clues are pointing in that direction) or some huge admission that would lay on his instability or potential for violence thick, but it never comes. The filmmakers respect the audience enough to let them piece the characters together based on the information they are given.
Jackman is good playing against type, though the script sometimes asks more of him than he's able to deliver; it might have been more interesting to see another actor who seems truly capable of doing some of the dark shit that Jackman threatens to do. But he's certainly fine, and it almost doesn't matter because half or more of the film is dedicated to following Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki as he relentlessly tries to break the case even in the face of a parade of obstacles. He isn't given any back story at all (save for one seemingly throwaway line about where he lived as a kid), and both the character and the performance are all the better for it. It's in the tattoo we see on his neck, which he mostly covers by buttoning his shirt to the very top. It's in the way he twitches and blinks too much, deprived of sleep and running on only caffeine and adrenaline. Loki comes across as a guy who's very smart and more than a little unpredictable—the kind of cop who could easily have been a criminal if things had gone just a little differently. Every time Gyllenhaal is on screen, the movie is better.
There's plenty else to like, too. The bench of supporting actors, which includes heavy hitters like Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and even Paul Dano make the most of their limited screen time. The score, by Johan Johannsson, is subtle and effective. Roger Deakins shot the movie, so you know it looks fantastic—he's able to make even grey skies, slushy driven snow and dilapidated buildings look beautiful. One of my favorite shots comes in the first third, when Jackman's character is first searching for his missing daughter in the thick of woods that swallow the entire town. His flashlight illuminates a couple of trees right in front of him; beyond that, total darkness. There is such hopelessness in that single image, which is on screen in only a few seconds. Deakins sells us on the plight of these characters with one shot.
At two and a half hours, the movie may test the patience of some viewers. Villenueve seems to be reaching for the scope of a masterpiece like Zodiac (a movie I thought about a lot during Prisoners, and not just because Jake Gyllenhaal is in both) but told on a much more intimate scale. Part chamber drama, part police procedural, part tragedy, part mystery, the movie does a lot of things and does most of them well. Like a ghost story that runs out of air as it resolves, Prisoners gives us a lot of compelling threads that disappoint as the filmmakers begin tying them together—the questions are a lot more interesting than the answers. Some of them feel obvious, others impossible. At the same time, there are implications that some of these events were set in motion years (even decades) ago, which gives things a haunting weight. Yes, the movie is bleak, but not unrelentingly so. Unlike a lot of Hollywood movies, not every loop is closed, nor question answered by the end. It leaves the viewer with things to think about.
Warner Bros. issues Prisoners on Blu-ray with spectacular video and audio and, disappointingly, an almost total dearth of bonus content. The 1.85:1 image, mastered in full 1080p HD, brings the most out of Roger Deakins' gorgeous, bleak photography—this is a slushy, grey movie, and the HD transfer does right by every overcast sky and wet footprint. The lossless 5.1 surround mix is subtle but effect, much more about creating a mood than about showcase moments. Dialogue is consistently clear and the music is balanced well enough to create just the kind of spell the filmmakers are after. The technical aspects of the disc are first-rate.
Unfortunately, it falls totally short in the bonus content department. All Warner Bros. has seen fit to include is a pair of EPK-style featurettes: "Every Moment Matters," which is basically just a glorified trailer, and "Powerful Performances," which includes some comments from the film's excellent cast. Combined the featurettes run about 12 minutes, and that's all you're going to get. I understand that not every movie needs hours of exhaustive bonus content, but this feels like a total missed opportunity.
Prisoners came out of nowhere for me. The marketing had me dreading it, but I was surprised at what a skillfully made, engrossing movie it turned out to be. It's nice to be pleasantly surprised, even by a film this dark. It just might be one of the year's best movies.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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