Prisoners(2013): A Dread and a Delight

Language : English | Running Time : 153 Minutes | Director : Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners poster

Prisoners poster

Towards the first hour of the film, Keller Dover(Hugh Jackman) when he is with the man he believes committed the crime of abducting his daughter, cries out – “He is not a man” . It is the reaction of a father whose child is missing and he doesn’t know if she is dead or alive, is he is safe or has been hurt. One of the most distressing things that cinema shows us is crimes against children. Almost all of us are weakened by it and Denis Villeneuve, the director of Incendies, has mastered the art of throwing things at people, which makes them uncomfortable and still manage to hold their attention. Prisoners is a whodunit in nature but it is not a simple one. We understand the need for the righteous cry, for retribution. In movies like The Secret In Their Eyes, we’ve seen similar reactions. In Mystic River, we’ve seen a father going out on his own to find his daughter, to get retribution. Prisoners evokes memories of these films and a few more but it never does the mistake of being ordinary or afflicted by a template.

In the very first few scenes of the movie we come to realise the kind of man Keller Dover is. We identify him as deeply religious man, a survivalist and a man whose pride is in keeping his family safe, protecting them and being vital to their living. When he recites a verse from the Bible before his son hunts a deer and then tells him how important it is to be prepared for all kinds of natural calamities, we find a man who likes to be prepared, certain about the way nature should work and a man of opinions. In many a way he is the classic angry dad character. A man who isn’t afraid of violence and a man who’ll go to any length to protect his family. but like everything in the movie, nothing is straightforward or as simple as black and white. Like the shades of the movie which are brown and grey as Roger Deakins, the genius, gives the film its looks, the characters also are grey. There are doubts and actions forming out of these doubts. In a way, they end up being realistic and breaking preconceived notions.

On Thanksgiving, the Dovers – Keller, Grace(Maria Bello) and their kids Ralph(Dylan Minnette) and Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) go to the house of their neighbours, the Birchs – Franklin(Terrence Howard), Nancy (Viola Davis), Eliza(Zoe Borde) and Joy(Kyla Drew Simmons). We get to see their camaraderie; their families are about the same age and there’s an easiness about them. During the course of the evening, Anna and Joy go missing and suspicion falls upon the driver of an RV camper, Alex (Paul Dano). He is found by Detective Loki(Jake Gyllenhall) and is arrested. During interrogation we learn that he lives with his weary aunt, Holly Jones(Melissa Leo) and see that he might be mentally unstable and here on we start on a tread of false trails, allegations and are never sure if anything is as it seems. Denis Villeneuve keeps the tone morbid and makes us feel uneasy, even queasy the way things unfold but Prisoners becomes quite naturalistic because of this tone. The reason I say naturalistic is because the way the characters are moulded as well. As fiery and angry Keller Dover is and as righteous his actions appear to be, he knows deep down that he is wrong. There’s a helplessness to what he does. This helplessness is even more pronounced when you see what Franklin has to go through. In a scene where Keller locks up Alex and after a conversation with Nancy and Franklin, tells them to do what they want with the man, Franklin tries to set him free but Nancy tell him to think what Joy’s going through. He leaves all his ideals behind and walks off, leaving Alex still locked up. It is moments such as this that makes Prisoners seem more real than it is.

In these kind of films, the angry dad needs an ideal foil and like Kevin Bacon served as one to Sean Penn in Mystic River, here we have Jake Gyllenhall become the cool, clear and practical cop. The last time Jake Gyllenhall played a cop, it was in End Of Watch where he was brilliant as a hard-working, intelligent cop. Here, the intelligence remains but the cockiness is replaced by coolness, a calmness to proceedings. Here, he twitches his eyes, stands aloof but at the same time observes everything and gives the film its sole stable figure. It is around him that the film evolves and we see him produce a wonderful performance. The film isn’t about straight edge characters. Everyone has their secrets, their own personalities that can at times be mellow and at others explode. They are tormented people. They are weary and are under a lot of pressure but the man who seems to be most affected is Detective Loki and Jake Gyllenhall excels as the detective. We never see Detective Loki beyond his professional capacity. We don’t know his personal life but what we get of him is enough. We need his character to help us through this film, to give us something to hold on to, someone comforting. In front of Hugh Jackman’s powerful performance and amidst actors like Melissa Leo, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, Jake Gyllenhall becomes our central character and holds the movie together.

Roger Deakins has time and again created wonderful films with his camera. He has this knack of getting the mood perfect for a film with his visuals and here he is no different. The brown and grey tone that make sup the images on-screen are pretty much how the movie works with its characters and story. It is morbid and difficult to take everything in but as you sit and wonder, you see the beauty of the whole thing, the wonderful craft at display in all departments of film making. If there is one genuine complaint I have with the film, it is the way make up is employed. It doesn’t add value to the film and takes away from the naturalistic look the film has developed. If there is one dampener to the overall aesthetics of the film, it is the make-up employed.

There is very little action in the film but there is a lot of energy. Roger Deakins’s camera keeps moving, shooting angles, coming from behind to give a sense of purpose and Denis Villeneuve makes great use of this to set up the pace for his film. A frustrating thing while watching the movie but clearly a work of genius, he never resorts to giving the adrenaline rush but rather engages us with the characters, the tone and the trail of false clues, hidden meanings and suspects. In every way, Prisoners works a whodunit and it is hard to see the film not being among the best films of the year. It will evoke memories of movies like Zodiac, Mystic River, The Secret In Their Eyes but it remains true to itself; it is a film on its own.

Yes, there are going to be complaints about the uncomfortable feeling the film gives you when you watch it but as you sit back and think about it, you can’t help but appreciate the film. Denis Villeneuve doesn’t make films which are easy to digest but when you learn to digest them, there are few films that can match the mastery of his films. Prisoners isn’t a masterpiece but it brings the best things in the genre together and gives them a new dimension; making this film all the more real.Prisoners can be a frustrating film, a film that will wear you out but when you watch it you will be left amazed at how it works, how it reveals things to you and keeps you guessing. It is the kind of movie that can make people go silent and captivate them but also make them fidget in their seats because what they see on-screen isn’t easy to digest, because it seems all too real. When you finish watching the film, there’s high chance that you will not like the film but when watching the film you are a willing captive to Denis Villeneuve’s methods and when you come out of the theater, sit and think about the film, there’s more chance of you loving the film than not loving it. Prisoners is captivating and spell binding, a film we can grow to love.
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5 thoughts on “Prisoners(2013): A Dread and a Delight

  1. This is one of the best film, i have seen this year from Hollywood. As you mentioned, while watching this film, at some places i was comparing it with Mystic River. Brilliant writing by Aaron,my attitude towards Hugh Jackman’s character was changing till climax.Jake for me was star of the movie, the way he fleshed out his character.Full marks to Denis to making this crime drama and keeping us hooked till the end.

    • The more I think about it, the more I like it. Jake’s grown so much as an actor. His characters in Zodiac, End Of Watch and Prisoners should be interesting character studies.

  2. The film is in the zone of films like Mystic River, Zodiac, Seven etc but has its own charm. Distinctly gripping, the film makes one uncomfortable alright but that’s the power of the film. Good take on a wonderful film Hithesh !!!

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