Thursday, September 19, 2013
The most persistent criticism I have of movies today is length. Even most films I admire could be shortened a bit, and be the better for it. "Prisoners" is the rare exception of a long movie that earns its time; I didn't begrudge it any one of its 153 minutes.
This intricately-plotted psychological thriller is like a puzzle box that seems mystifying at first, but the deeper you go the clearer things come into focus. In the end all the little pieces mesh together perfectly.
The story of two kidnapped little girls and the two men trying desperately to find them -- one an angry, grieving father, the other an obsessive police detective -- "Prisoners" defies easy categorization. On the surface it wears the clothes of a crime procedural. But also it's about the conflict between these two characters.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the dad, is all gut instincts and faith. His emotions frequently get the better of him as time goes on and the chances of finding the girls alive plummet. Loki, the detective played by Jake Gyllenhaal, operates on logic and dogged determination. Early on we learn that he has never failed to solve a case, mainly because his life consists of little else but the hunt.
On an even deeper level, the film is a morality play, questioning whether extreme actions in the service of good can ever justify themselves. Keller becomes convinced that a simple-minded, nearly mute man named Alex (Paul Dano) has something to do with the disappearance of his daughter and another family's girl on Thanksgiving Day.
Alex's busted-up RV was spotted near where the girls went missing, and he initially ran from police. But they find no evidence to hold him, and Keller takes matters into his own hands. He enlists the aid of the other aggrieved father (Terrence Howard) in holding Alex hostage, which sets off a conflict between the two. There's a subtle rivalry between them: the well-off yuppie versus the blue-collar survivalist, the voice of civil reason against the "man's gotta do what a man's gotta do" individualist credo.
"He's not a person anymore," Keller insists. "He stopped being a person when he took our daughters."
Their wives react in equally different ways. Keller's spouse Grace (Maria Bello) essentially checks herself out, wallowing in pity and prescription sedatives. Nancy (Viola Davis) is front and center in the search, and then gets even more involved in a way that surprises.
Director Denis Villeneuve ("Incendies") and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski explore their characters in subtle, probing ways. For instance, Loki's tattoos on his fingers and neck hint at a hard past, and a throwaway line of dialogue suggests he's an orphan. He's an idealist grown suspicious of traditional bastions of solidity, like the church or even the scales of justice for which he labors.
Keller's collection of religious crosses, weapons and emergency rations depict a man of outward confidence who inwardly lives in fear, leading us to believe at one point he may have had something to do with the kidnapping himself.
Other characters and story threads float around the fringes. There's the priest Loki investigates with a terrible secret that may or may not have something to do with this case. And Alex's protective aunt (Melissa Leo), who wants to protect her nephew but seems to intuitively understand Keller's rage at his impotence. Or the strange, sallow-faced man who shows up at a candlelight vigil.
Slowly, methodically, the cast and crew build this crime story into something much more, a dark and disturbing tale about the choices we make in duress. We're all prisoners of those decisions, for good or ill.