“Somebody needs to make him talk, or they’re gonna die,” growls Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the terrified father of an abducted girl and the searing centerpoint of Denis Villeneuve’s excellent film Prisoners, to a horrified family friend (Terrence Howard) whose daughter has also been taken. The ‘him’ in question: sinister man-child Alex Jones, played to perfection by Paul Dano, whom Keller has taken hostage in his conviction that Alex can lead him to the missing girls.
The twisted morality play at the center of Prisoners revolves around Keller’s divisive, ends-justify-the-means approach to justice; are his brutal tactics warranted if the girls turn up unharmed? Or is there a limit to how much evil can be done in pursuit of a greater good? Luckily, Villeneuve doesn’t indicate a clear moral high ground, instead choosing to revel in the murky behaviors of his characters. The result is one of the most complex and compelling thrillers of the year.
Front and center to watch as Keller forces himself closer to the brink is the tormented Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who attempts to keep the case at arm’s length but quickly becomes just as obsessed as Keller. The two butt heads frequently and spectacularly, with Loki struggling to maintain his composure and Keller flouting legality at every turn. The twists and turns in Prisoners are brilliantly constructed to pull the audience in without ever moving the spotlight off these two dueling protagonists.
And why would it? Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal are at the peak of their powers in Prisoners, bringing raw humanity and heart-stopping emotion to characters who could have easily been rendered one-note in the hands of less confident, capable actors. Jackman plays off his indestructible Wolverine persona to examine how unbearable pressure can work to unhinge even the most strong, together and prepared individual. His is a volatile powder-keg of a performance, bursting with passion, rage and agony. The actor has simply never been better.
Meanwhile, Gyllenhaal constructs a fascinatingly complex and multi-layered portrait of a professional coming apart at the seams, as much a prisoner to his investigation and to his demons as Keller or the abducted girls. Bringing a surprising physicality and stunning dramatic pathos to Loki, Gyllenhaal proves himself a potent on-screen force. So much is left to the actor’s slightest expressions and movements that Prisoners is shockingly lucky to have found such an adroit and committed star.
Both performances deserve major awards attention, but Jackman and Gyllenhaal aren’t even the most incredible part of Prisoners. That’s Villeneuve himself, who inflects every scene with an unnerving undercurrent of dread and manipulates the camera with such thrilling ability that Prisoners is able to succeed and go far past wherever you think it is able to go. Villeneuve allows the film to intrude not only into the homes of its characters but also into their minds and their deepest, darkest thoughts.
Though the film was marketed as an intense thriller, it would be a disservice to Prisoners to saddle it with that slight description. The film is also an aggressively intelligent character study, as well as a meticulous dissection of society and justice. The greatest triumph of Prisoners is how it exposes both the savagery of human instinct and the folly of human desire to build order out of a very natural state of chaos.
All of the supporting actors turn in heart-wrenching performances. Howard is aces as a decent, emotional man floundering when faced with the anarchy of an unimaginable situation. Viola Davis is also terrific as the wife of Howard’s character, who responds to her daughter’s abduction with steely resolve and quiet self-possession. Portraying Keller’s typically jubilant wife, who spirals into misery and terror, Maria Bello should be commended for showcasing her character’s broken emotional state without ever veering into theatricality. Acting without any makeup or props, Bello delivers a strong, believable and overwhelmingly vulnerable performance. Finally, Melissa Leo chills as an eerily devout old woman who knows more about the abductions that she lets on. To say any more though would be a massively unfair spoiler.
With such a powerhouse of a cast, Villeneuve had his work cut out for him from the beginning, but his devotion to establishing and maintaining a nauseatingly nightmarish atmosphere, coupled with the resounding strength of his cast’s performances, turns Prisoners into something exceedingly ambitious and memorable. Moral quagmires abound in Prisoners, and the way Villeneuve approaches them is not only innovative but disturbing. Prisoners asks a lot of scary questions and poses even scarier answers, presenting itself as equal parts ethical mind-bender and relentless thriller. It’s bold, brutal and unforgettable.
The 1080p HD Blu-Ray transfer for Prisoners is top-notch, capturing even the finest details of Roger Deakins’ moody, morose cinematography. The characters are all vividly rendered, and the excellent picture quality doesn’t sacrifice any of Villeneuve’s dark, downbeat tone. Cinematography is a major part of Prisoners, so picking the film up on Blu-Ray to get the full effect is highly recommended. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio Track is also strongly implemented, highlighting brutal moments of violence in an otherwise dialogue-heavy film. You’ll want to turn your volume up high to catch whispered lines, but it’s a first-class soundtrack that does much to communicate the pained nuances of characters’ lines.
Prisoners comes with disappointingly few special features. The Blu-Ray/DVD pack only features the following:
- UltraViolet Digital HD Digital Copy
- Prisoners – Every Moment Matters
- Prisoners – Powerful Performances
The “Every Moment Matters” feature is a glorified preview, only featuring a few snippets of behind-the-scenes commentary from stars, the director and producers. It only runs about three minutes, and the majority of that time is spent showing intense scenes from the film that, while powerful, add little to the purpose of the bit, which is to examine the central relationship between Gyllenhaal’s Loki and Jackman’s Keller.
“Powerful Performances” is a lot better. Clocking in at over nine minutes, the feature takes time to explore each of its characters from the perspectives of various people involved with the film. The actors all have surprisingly lavish amounts of praise for all their co-stars, though it is a little disappointing that all of their comments are clipped from longer interviews that were not included in the set. Definitely give the feature a watch, though it’s not nearly long enough to properly explore the layers and complexities of Prisoners‘ plot, tone and characters.
Prisoners is one of the must-see films of 2013. In its refusal to give easy answers, its commitment to developing strong and believable characters and its determination to delve into the darker side of human nature, the film transcends the limitations of its genre to become something much more interesting, not to mention much better. Prisoners will captivate you in all the best ways.
Bolstered by two blistering performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, as well as Denis Villeneuve's taut direction, Prisoners is a captivating morality puzzle and one of the year's most brilliant thrillers.