FRESH POUR: Prisoners (2013)

Clint takes a look at one or two new releases that come out each week –just a short look at what’s being released in theaters, along with some drinking rules for your own perusal.

Prisoners / dir. Denis Villeneuve / Warner Bros. Pictures

PrisonersIn the post-summer blockbuster, pre-prestige film morass that is September, it can be really hard to define or place appropriate expectations on the films released in that period. In the case of Prisoners, I wasn’t sure what to think going in; I was sick of seeing the trailer before every movie the past couple of months, and the trailer was full of Yelling Hugh Jackman, pandering “what would you do to save your family?” moments, and more. Granted, Prisoners is still about that, but its execution elevates it far above its pulpy, procedural concept, making it a haunting exploration of moral ambiguity.

Prisoners tells the story of the search for a pair of missing girls, the daughters of the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who are taken in broad daylight on Thanksgiving Day – the only hint being a mysterious RV that they were playing on earlier that day. As the days crawl on with no sign of the girls, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Jackman’s Keller Dover (yeah, the film’s admittedly full of these kinds of obnoxious names) perform their own separate investigations. While Loki runs down dead end after dead end, Keller kidnaps the prime suspect, the mentally-stunted RV owner Alex (Paul Dano, all doe eyes and thinly-closed lips) and tortures him in an abandoned house in order to get the answers he knows Alex has.

The real stars of the film are the acting and cinematography; acclaimed DP Roger Deakins paints this small Pennsylvania town with a bleakness and specificity that’s just fascinating to watch. The film has the crisp, cold, methodical feel of David Fincher’s better crime thrillers, like Zodiac (which also starred Gyllenhaal) or Se7en. The atmosphere of the film is haunting from start to finish, as the warm light of a candelight vigil is contrasted sharply with scenes in gentle snow or torrential rains. The cast is uniformly excellent, too; there is not a bad performance in the bunch, and even some of the more underserved players (like Bello and Davis) find compelling ways to express their grief and sorrow at the loss of their girls. Gyllenhaal has been turning in some great performances of late (e.g. End of Watch), and Loki is no exception – he’s one of the most enigmatic players in the film, despite being one of its leads, but Gyllenhaal infuses him with a blinking, shuffling, borderline unstable physicality that alludes to more under the surface. Hugh Jackman is also great here; there are moments when his usual overplaying does take over, but it fits hand in glove with a man who wrestles with both his belief in God and his insecurity about protecting his family. His scenes with the wiry Dano, where he alternates between good and bad cop within a single line, are delicious to watch.

If there is anything to complain about in the film, it is its length – the film is two and a half hours long, and there is about 30 minutes one could trim from the finished film without affecting it dramatically. The middle third spins its wheels quite a bit as Loki runs into red herrings, Dover tortures Alex a little more, and the respective families start to come apart at the seams. However, I’d argue that fits perfectly with the film’s atmosphere – the characters are caught in this interminable suspense, waiting for their babies to come home. To that end, these moments of the characters going in circles, looking for answers, elicit the same kind of sympathetic frustration in us that they feel. The final third of the movie does stumble with a few narrative conveniences, and one late turn in the end is a bit over-the-top for a film that has been so nuanced thus far, but it all still comes together in a wonderfully cohesive whole.

Director Denis Villeneuve (in his first English-language feature) has crafted a wonderfully deliberate film about moral ambiguity, loss of innocence, the power/failing of faith, and more. Symbols and expressions of faith and spirituality are all over the place, from the cross hanging from Dover’s rear-view mirror to the Zodiac signs tattooed on Loki’s knuckles; each character has their own systems of belief that they rely on to make sense of the universe. Dover believes in God, but thinks it is up to him alone to protect his family (as evidenced by his hard-on for survivalism). Some characters think God has abandoned them, others turn to intellectual systems of order to define their universe, and still more turn to hopelessness and self-medicating to escape their troubles. The kidnapping of the girls almost seems like a mere catalyst for shaking up these character’s understanding for the world, just to see what happens – a philosophy that comes eerily into play in the film’s final scenes. In short, go see Prisoners; it’s a little long, but what’s there is incredibly, surprisingly compelling.

Clint’s Verdict: Loved It

 Drinking Rules for Prisoners:
1) Drink anytime a character sheds a tear (one drink per tear)
2) Drink whenever a shot prominently features the back of someone’s head
3) Drink every time someone takes a drink (drink twice if they are drinking Whiskey brand whiskey).
Finish Your Drink When:
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) says, “Almighty God, save my girl.”
(Alternatively, finish your drink when you giggle at the line “Alex Jones has the IQ of a 10 year old.”)

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About Clint Worthington

Clint Worthington is a Chicago-based film/TV critic and podcaster. A member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, you can find his other film work at Consequence of Sound (where he is a Senior Staff Writer), Crooked Marquee, IndieWire and UPROXX. He is also the co-host of Nathan Rabin's Happy Cast.

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