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Review: Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners (2013)

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Premise: Two preadolescent girls are abducted and a mentally deficient young man (Paul Dano) is taken into custody. But when the case goes cold, the girls’ fathers (Terrence Howard and Hugh Jackman) begin to take matters into their own hands. 

What Works: Prisoners is a very smart and well-made mystery. One of the challenges of a thriller is staying a step ahead of the audience and continually adding twists into the story without those machinations becoming contrived or absurd. The filmmakers of Prisoners manage to accomplish that and their film is an intelligent dramatization of people trying and quite often failing to do the right thing. In the course of the story, the lead suspect, played by Paul Dano, is released from custody and is abducted by the girls’ fathers, played by Terrence Howard and Hugh Jackman. The two men attempt to force a confession out of their captive and as time wears on the more desperate and more dangerous the fathers become. Prisoners is a movie that questions how we behave when circumstances threaten our values and the filmmakers create a compelling what-if scenario. There have been several films like this in recent years, mostly framing the idea around acts of terrorism in pictures like Unthinkable and Munich.  In Prisoners the prospect of violence against children and the devastation that their disappearance wrecks on the family and the neighborhood has a very immediate impact for the viewer, more so than similar stories about terroristic bomb plots, and the way the movie muddies the moral distinctions of this film is very unsettling. But Prisoners does not give in to false equivalences either. No excuses are made for the predators and if anything the movie demands a kind of a moral engagement from the viewer that is rare in mainstream American cinema. But even as dark as Prisoners can get, this is a movie that maintains its humanity. The characters make difficult or bad choices but they aren’t stupid choices and the filmmakers are able to create an interesting tension for the audience in which torturous interrogation is at once horrific and understandable given the circumstances. That tension plays out primarily in Hugh Jackman’s performance. Jackman often plays tough, heroic alpha male characters and the filmmakers play on that public image, using it to create audience expectations and then undermine those expectations.

What Doesn’t: Prisoners is at its strongest at the beginning and in the ending when the ticking clock plot device counts down the loudest but the film sags a little in the middle. This portion of the film does not lose the tension but it lacks the urgency of the girls’ initial disappearance and the palatable stakes of the race against time in the climax. Prisoners is also a movie that is morally ambiguous and narratively inconclusive. Although some viewers have trouble with ambiguity, the moral uncertainty of Prisoners is to its credit and a key part of what makes it work as well as it does but the ending is lacking. Open endings can work and are sometimes wholly appropriate as in The Grey and Inception but the finale of Prisoners is too abrupt for its own good. The filmmakers are also disappointingly unimaginative in the way they handle the lead female characters. Maria Bello and Viola Davis are terrific actresses but they are underutilized here, with Davis confined to a handful of scenes and Bello spending most of the movie bedridden with grief.

Bottom Line: Prisoners is a tough and sometimes unsettling movie but it is also a terrific thriller. This film is smartly plotted, excellently acted, and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of what people will do in desperate situations. That complexity is welcome in a movie marketplace that often gravitates toward simplicity.

Episode: #458 (September 29, 2013)