There is a strange scene early in Prisoners, the English-language debut of French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose Oscar-nominated 2010 film Incendies was as shocking as it was heartbreaking): a close, static shot of a tree trunk. The scene’s presence is functionally unnecessary, considering the film’s 153-minute running time, and it adds zilch developmentally. Yet it is unsettling in its absolute serenity and serves as the last truly peaceful scene in the film, which slowly descends over the course of its lengthy duration into deeper levels of dread.
The film opens as Keller Dover (an increasingly haggard Hugh Jackman), a devoutly faithful working class husband and father of two, is finishing up hunting with his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette). On their drive home, the score of their hunt in the bed of his pickup truck, Keller – who subscribes to a survivalist code and has constructed a fallout stockpile in his basement – reminds his son of a self-evident truism: “always be prepared.” Considering what later occurs, it ends up being the most ironic of introductory mantras.
It’s Thanksgiving Day, and the Dovers are breaking bread with their friends and neighbors, the Birches. There is a light camaraderie between the families borne of warm familiarity. After dinner, they break off into groups. The parents gather in the den while Franklin Birch (a serviceable Terrence Howard) holds court. Ralph and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) take their kid sisters on a walk, during which they encounter and lightly tamper with a dilapidated RV parked conspicuously on the side of the street. After returning back to the house, the two restless six-year-old girls ask to run over to the Dover residence to retrieve young Anna Dover’s (Erin Gerasimovich) red “danger” whistle. No one bats an eye.
Several hours pass and the greatest of all parental horrors sets in: the girls have been taken. In the mad scramble for clues as to what may have happened, Ralph mentions the RV they encountered. After looking everywhere, they call the police.
The call is taken by Detective Loki (an absolutely brilliant Jake Gyllenhaal, whose range has yet to find its borders), who is dining alone in a Chinese restaurant. In his brief exchange with the waitress, he comes off as somewhat socially stunted, and though it is never explicitly illustrated for the audience, everything that is conveyed throughout the picture infers he is deeply damaged and unhappy. Gyllenhaal’s quiet pathos is the crux of the film, which otherwise is almost too dark to bear at times.
After some searching, they find the RV, parked on the outskirts of a woodland area. In a feeble attempt to flee, the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano, who continues to work on usurping Crispin Glover in creepy performances) is taken in. After being interrogated and tested, it is determined that Alex has the IQ of a 10-year-old. His RV comes back clean of any DNA evidence. Lacking evidence and doubtful of his guilt, the police are forced to let him go. Keller, certain that Alex knows where the girls are, decides to take matters into his own hands. But at what cost?
The above synopsis covers perhaps the first half hour of the movie. The genuinely disturbing events and revelations which follow leave a lasting impression long after the theater lights come up (most notably the eerie series of events that unfold around the halfway mark when Loki pays a visit to a known sex offender priest’s house). During the film’s course, lines of morality are crossed, irreparable damage is done and no one escapes unscathed.
This is the kind of movie that engages in a dialog with its audience, and we can’t help but ask ourselves what we would do if placed in the same situation. There are no easy answers to be found, both in the movie and from the audience. Pulpy in its answers and gritty in its delivery, Prisoners is a terrific piece of detective cinema that doesn’t throw in some contrived conclusion to tie up loose ends. There are clues strewn along the way, and though the mystery is solved by the film’s conclusion, its solution still remains enigmatic until the very end.
(Photos and video courtesy of Warner Bros. and Alcon Entertainment.)
Latest posts by Jesse Scheckner (see all)
- Danny Garavito, two-division ammy MMA champ debuting this Friday: “[My greatest strength is] toughness” - August 29, 2017
- INTERVIEW: “Felony” Charles Bennett talks Wanderlei Silva, going to jail, nicknames and Island Fights - February 10, 2017
- TuffGnarl.com staff picks: The Best of 2016 - January 1, 2017
- INTERVIEW: Lopez Radio and the search for truth, comfortable silences and conversational unpredictability - September 20, 2016
- Mowry vs. Eatman: Behind Titan FC 41’s heavyweight curtain jerker - September 7, 2016