The Movie Man: "Prisoners" a solid suspense movie
September 24, 2013, I’ve been writing these reviews long enough now that it can sometimes start to feel like I’ve reviewed every type of film under the sun. Really though, there are still a couple gaps in the Movie Man archives. One of the biggest genres I’ve yet to review is a mystery. The reasons why are something of a well…mystery. Ok, I’ve gotten my awful joke out of the way for this week, so we can move on to this week’s review: “Prisoners”, a fairly intense and quite complex film that nonetheless makes for excellent viewing.
Since I always try to make my reviews as spoiler free as possible, I’m at a bit of a loss as how to go about my usual plot summary for a mystery, in that revealing too much about certain aspects of the plot will tarnish the puzzle for the viewers, so bear with me and know that I may be leaving a lot out.
The central mystery of “Prisoners” centers on two young girls who disappear from their neighborhood during a family thanksgiving celebration. Their older brother recalls an encounter with a mysterious RV in the neighborhood which leads the police to quickly zero in on a suspect. When that man (who appears guilty) is released due to lack of evidence, it sparks a chain of events that sets the father of one of the girls on a path to prove the man’s guilt while butting heads with the police detective assigned to investigate the case.
As both men are drawn ever deeper into a web of deceit and intrigue both must confront just how far they are willing to go to uncover the truth. Suffice it to say, the mystery element is actually done quite well with an ultimate solution that is both logical and (to me at least) unexpected.
Hugh Jackman headlines “Prisoners” as the father of one of the girls and gives an outstanding performance. He’s more or less become the go to guy if you need a rugged blue collar everyman in your film, and he shows why here. Although his character is deeply flawed and over the course of the film does some very unsavory things, Jackman plays him with such a solemn dignity and sense of resolve that the whole thing works.
Jake Gyllenhaal plays the hardboiled detective investigating the case and also gives a good performance, though one occasionally saddled with cop film clichés. Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Maria Bello play the other three parents, but I was sorely disappointed in how little they all were utilized considering they’re all three very fine actors. Rounding out the cast is the always great Paul Dano as the apparently simple minded abduction suspect and Melissa Leo as his aunt, in what is also an excellent performance. All in all, “Prisoners” is chock full of great performances from a cast that contains some of the best actors currently working.
Perhaps the thing I admired most about “Prisoners” is the precision and skill with which it constructs its central mystery. We’re given clues, suspects, leads, false trails, secrets and a bunch of other cool elements to try to piece together, but the film always seems to have one more card up its sleeve. Just when I thought I had things figured out, the film spun off in a wildly different direction and took a strange new tack. Even so, the film always plays straight with the audience, leaving all its cards on the table and never coming up with something out of thin air. Really, I’d say this film could be a textbook example of how to construct a mature, gripping mystery.
I was also fond of the way “Prisoners” was evocative of a time and place. It captures the world and lives of its working class, Middle American characters in a way rarely seen in Hollywood films. The places feel like real places, the people feel like real people, which grounds the action and brings a strong sense of humanity to the proceedings. I’m sure this often stark sense of realism is largely due to the absolutely gorgeous photography by Roger Deakins, which benefits the film greatly, and gives it a look of majestic, if often sad beauty which fits the tone of the film perfectly.
No film however, is without its flaws and “Prisoners” is no exception. First of all, the film can occasionally be a bit too clever and maze-like for its own good. Like I said above, the mystery it presents is wonderfully complex and at its best times (which are many) gripping, but there are so many clues, so many red herrings that there are points when it all gets to feel like it’s a bit much. For the first hour of the film I was thinking “this is an excellent film”. In the next half hour I was thinking “this is a very good film”. After that, it became “this is a good film” until the ending redeemed a lot of the lost momentum and bumped it back up to very good.
I guess I just felt too strung along, but it is just a bit disappointing that the film couldn’t keep up that initial momentum. “Prisoners” is also a very ambiguous film, which may not be to everyone’s tastes. We’re shown more or less what happened by the end, but a lot of the why is left up to viewer’s imaginations, we're left to ask questions about the motivations and personalities. Likewise, the film ends on a very oblique note that for me was the perfect ending for the material, but is sure to annoy those who prefer things wrapped up a little more tightly.
“Prisoners” is Rated R, primarily for often brutal violence and language, but also I would suppose for sheer thematic intensity. If you’re turned off by graphic and realistic depictions of violence, you probably want to give this one a pass, as the violence here really is quite intense, made more so by the stark realism of the film.
Overall, I was really satisfied with “Prisoners”. It was a gripping suspense tale with a first rate cast and some excellent plotting. For those bored with the last several months of summer fluff, and looking for something more mature, this should be just the ticket. Its flaws kept it from ever achieving true greatness in my opinion, but if someone wanted to make the argument it was a great film, I’d entertain it. It’s that good.
Rated 3 ½ stars out of a possible 4.