Review: Prisoners (2013)
Editor’s Note: Prisoners is now open in cinemas. For an alternate take on the film, see Kamran’s review.
What it might be to lose a child. How to endure it? When might the passage of time finally recommence? What are the answers after, say, a year, two? Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners takes place over a single week. It feels much, much longer. As a father’s desperation fogs and then subsumes his judgment, and a cop’s dedication contorts his professionalism into an emotional trap, months seem to have passed since we last saw the abducted girls. There is no mercy in the relatively few days over which the story spans. Every lost moment, every gone hour marks significant declines in the odds missing children are found alive.
The questions Aaron Guzikowski’s script raises are obvious ones. How could a parent possibly cope, hope more like torment than optimism? Violence against children afflicts people with the unique sort of discomfort provoked only by harm to those most defenseless. Parents of an abducted child have the severe misfortune of having to wait for the final toll. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is perfectly aware of this. It is his job to provide answers, which, we’re told, he’s never failed to do. But answers do not necessarily amount to solace—often they don’t, in situations like this. How can someone function under the pressure of that truth?
Prisoners moves slowly, but the prolonged moments seem a vital creep. There’s beauty all around the film—particularly in a confounding extreme-overhead shot of the search party in the woods—but more so, dread overwhelms the film.
Villeneuve answers that invariable on the home front. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a survivalist, telling his son to “pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” If the wintry Pennsylvania rains were to drown the town, Keller would be the man to have befriended, his basement better stocked than the bunker in The Road. He’s no hermit; he deeply loves his family. His emotional volatility may even surprise. When Loki visits the Dovers for the first time following the abduction, Keller already seems a hairline from despair, his effortful pragmatism struggling to keep him afloat.
He loses the light grip when the police release the initial suspect in his daughter’s disappearance, an early-thirties adopted man, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Keller rushes him, seething amidst the man’s aunt (Melissa Leo) and the press. Before Keller’s restrained, Alex whispers to him, as if more terrified and confused by the memory than Keller: “They didn’t cry until I left them.” There is no more calm for Keller, no more patience for procedure. That night, he kidnaps Alex, recruits Franklin, and pummels the man who knows where their daughters are.
Anna Dover and Joy Birch go missing on Thanksgiving. The Dovers and the Birches were spending the holiday together, watching football and drunkenly trumpeting the “Star Spangled Banner.” Appreciate the scene. What you are in store for is cheerless. When the girls go missing, the driver of an RV garners the suspicion. Loki finds it at a truck stop, Alex cowering in the upper bed—at first easily mistakable for one of the children. Part of the reason he’s ultimately released is that Alex possess the intellect of a ten-year-old. A polygraph does little good, Loki reasons with the Dovers, if the participant doesn’t understand the questions.
These, though, are the stakes. Keller’s daughter is missing, along with his friend’s. He abducts and tortures the man who cryptically admits to the crime—a man whose mind is no more sophisticated than those of the innocent girls. Alex’s mental capacity twists what would otherwise be a more sympathetic moral impasse: Keller’s crime is no better than Alex’s. In fact, unlike Alex, Keller has all of his faculties. We also see him behave and think much, much more violently. Alex evokes fear, but the sort brought on by something so very strange. He’s a disturbed boy, his body and age irrelevant characteristics. “I’ll get you out of here,” Keller at one point tells Alex. And though he says he regards Alex as less than a person, he goes about his interrogations with oppressive sadness. Sadness for his daughter, his friends, Alex, himself. He isn’t without morals. In his desperation he’s deemed them obsolete. And bit by bit it exhausts his hope.
Villeneuve extracts mood more artfully elsewhere. He manages to at once frame his shots with tension and beauty. He taunts us with the depth of field, clues often onscreen, sometimes out of focus, sometimes as clear as the characters.
Prisoners is at its strongest, however, when Gyllenhaal is onscreen. There isn’t a less than impressive performance in the film—Viola Davis as Mrs. Franklin stealing an emotional and shocking scene—but Guzikowski’s script seems most comfortable with the puzzle of the case. Guzikowski’s wrought the procedural aspects with fascinating authenticity. A conflict briefly arises between Loki and his boss where, in other films, we might see the filmmakers amp up the adrenaline. The argument is impassioned but professional, and Gyllenhaal delivers with conviction. Though the emotion in the family scenes can coldcock you, the themes do not always satisfy. Keller is a religious man, but as a device the presence of religion proves too clumsy to feel like much more than a convenience.
Villeneuve extracts mood more artfully elsewhere. He manages to at once frame his shots with tension and beauty. He taunts us with the depth of field, clues often onscreen, sometimes out of focus, sometimes as clear as the characters. Hitchcock had a saying that a bomb underneath the table was tension. Villeneuve employs a torturous variation compounded with dramatic irony. We don’t always notice the clues or patterns, but when we do the anxiety is so profound that we must struggle to not shout. For Loki and the characters, the bomb is under the table. For us, it’s on the plate. Even if it’s not clear what it may be, Villeneuve masterfully frames these scenes so that we obsess until the cut: There’s something here, there’s something here, there’s something here…
Prisoners moves slowly, but the prolonged moments seem a vital creep. There’s beauty all around the film—particularly in a confounding extreme-overhead shot of the search party in the woods—but more so, dread overwhelms the film. It’s a terribly bleak picture. Given its content and deliberateness, it’s hard to fault it. It wraps up with a degree of inevitability easily taken as tidiness. The plot resolves, but the themes and atmosphere linger. I left feeling as I did after first watch Revolutionary Road. There’s little hope; even if the girls are found, what to make of Keller? As the camera presses in ominously, beware that safety, as Grace Dover explains to her husband, is a devious illusion.