Monday, September 23, 2013

Amazing Acting and Cinematography Propels Prisoners to Greatness

     Prisoners is a film that is disturbing the best possible fashion. It also raises an interesting question (and one that's been raised in cinema hundreds of times before, but rarely this good): if your young daughter was kidnapped, how far would you go to bring the abductor to justice? Torture? Murder? This question permeates throughout the entire run time of Prisoners--It's dark, and there is never an easy answer. It helps that the film is incredibly beautiful in the bleakest way. In my crowd, we have a little joke about crappy movies: you can almost always say, "Well, the cinematography is so beautiful!"--basically looking on the bright side of a boring film or poorly-written script. But Prisoners is visually stunning in the best sense: masterfully directed by French Canadian director Dennis Villeneuve, every shot and every scene is perfectly filmed (it helps having cinematographer Roger Deakins, one of the best around). And though it tries a bit too hard to surprise near the end, the two wonderful performances by Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal buoy the film enough so it never sinks under its own heavy weight.
     At a length of nearly 2 hours and 40 minutes, Prisoners really puts you through the wringer in terms of emotional depth. And like most films that involve a crime investigation with exciting reveals and shocking acts of rage, it's best to know as little as possible. So here are just the basics: Hugh Jackman portrays Keller Dover, a man of exceptional Christian values who would be right at home on an episode of Doomsday Preppers--his basement is stocked full of supplies--food, ammunition, propane, batteries--one would need in an economic collapse. His family (wife, teenage son, young daughter) goes to a friend's family (wife, teenage daughter, young daughter) for Thanksgiving, and the two younger girls go out to play after the meal. Hours later, they are nowhere to be seen.
     A phone rings. A detective pauses his lonesome Thanksgiving meal at a Chinese restaurant (typical movie detective, obsessed with his job) and answers. He gets the lead in the investigation of the missing girls. It's Jake Gyllenhaal, and he portrays Detective Loki, a young and determined policeman with a perfect record of solving cases. He's obsessed with his job, and constantly looks determined due to a nervous blinking-of-the-eyes tic. His first tip takes him to an RV that was seen near the scene of the crime. The driver turns out to be Alex (Paul Dano, who was great in There Will be Blood), a young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old (but somehow has a driver's license). After intentionally ramming the car into a tree, Alex gets arrested as a key player in the investigation.
     Don't worry: this all happens early on in Prisoners, a film that firmly plants you on the edge of your seat for over two hours. The acting is incredibly top-notch, particularly the two male leads in Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman's Keller is a man that has always been prepared for everything, so when his daughter is taken, he has a powerless feeling that has (so-far) been unheard of in his life. Jackman has some incredible scenes: it's a testament to his acting ability that he can portray anger and not remind you of Wolverine. But Gyllenhaal is even better: he's in a bit of a thankless role--these types of detectives always get pigeon-holed into specific character traits. But Jake G. rises above the cliched norm, surprising the viewer with his intensity and tenacious smarts about the nature of man. And to a lesser extent, Paul Dano is great in his limited time.
     The stars behind the scenes are just as impressive. Dennis Villeneuve (who directed the Oscar-nominated foreign film, Incendies) makes his English-language debut with Prisoners, and it's a complex work that leaves you thinking long after the lights flash on once the credits roll. There are plenty of surprises to be found--some subtle and some a tad too convenient. But they all have lasting power due to the direction that doesn't allow you to look away. And Deakins (who has worked on some of the better cinematic experiences of the last 25 years) saturates every camera shot with a wet darkness and incredible lighting choices that are each little works of art. A rainy parking lot dimly-lit by gas station lights, a candlelight vigil with flashes of flame, a collage of red and blue police lights mixed with snow--this is a master at the top of his game.
     Prisoners is a scary film. Not like a horror movie, where the scares are meant to jump you out of your seat. But scary because it puts you in the position of a father who will go to any extreme to find his daughter alive. Keller realizes (and the viewer does too, considering all of the true-crime television shows plastered across the cable networks) that with every hour that passes, the chances of finding the young girls alive dwindle and shrink. This isn't a normal revenge film, where the father goes on a killing spree the entire time to save his offspring. It's slower and more subtle, and because of that, Prisoners focuses much more on ambiguity and doubt than on bloodshed.     (A)

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