Prisoners (2013) Review
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Certificate: 15 Running Time: 2hr 33 Mins
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Paul Dano
Plot: When the Dover (Jackman and Bello) and Birch (Howard and Davis) family’s daughters mysteriously disappear, a frantic search led by Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) ensues to solve the case and return the girls to safety.
So how does a man tasked with a tiresome day job stuffing envelopes for an advertising firm transform into one of Hollywood’s hottest properties? The rise to prominence of amateur screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski is nothing short of remarkable. His script Prisoners endured numerous rejections and hitches over its turbulent lifecycle before Canadian-French director of the superb ‘Incendies’ (2010), Denis Villeneuve, took control of the venture. Villeneuve attracted a stellar cast including the talismanic powerhouse Hugh Jackman to star and the rest as they say is history.
Seeping through every pore of Prisoners is an insurmountable power which casts an unyielding grip upon its captive audience. Villeneuve’s work has slow-burning, engrossing qualities that draws the viewer in to an intricate game of hide and seek. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) progressively untangles a web spun by the villain. The Midas touch of legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins has beautifully captured and crystallised the stark, rural Pennsylvanian landscape. With superb heartfelt performances all round, Prisoners transpires into one of the most gripping thrillers in recent memory.
There is an intangible sincerity to the script which serves as an apathetic acknowledgement of man’s innate, protective ownership of his kin. When faced with troubled waters, a parent’s animal instinct can surface in a multitude of forms. Guzikowksi expertly embodies four disparate strands of the human psyche in the shape of four grief stricken parents: the aggressor (Jackman), the passive aggressive (Howard), dissociation via denial (Bello) and desperation (Davis). Each character’s reaction is founded in truth. The premise that man must be pushed to the brink of desperation in order to test his limit is explored in brutal fashion. Look out for the explosive hammer scene which will send shudders down even the most robust spine.
Can we take the law into our hands if justice isn’t being served by the system? Prisoners raises this dilemma through Paul Dano’s role as prime suspect. In an interesting juxtaposition, the viewer is left to decide whether toxic actions are justified to reach a prosperous end. The strong religious undertone throughout etches a moral compass into the very fibre of Prisoners, does a man’s good intentions outweigh the depths of madness required to fulfil them? The question is a timeless and one which religious scholars have debated for centuries. The human race is often willing to stand by and allow for necessary pain to be inflicted, just as long as they don’t have to get their hands dirty. Viola Davis’s character embodies this mantra.
Detective Loki (the terrific Gyllenhaal) grows more prominent as events unfold. Lonesome in his nature, his purpose in life is driven by the need to uphold his desire to maintain his unblemished crime solving record. A big fish in a small pond. The role of the police is somewhat confused; the sheer ineptitude of the sheriff during the investigation feels unrealistic. This may well be an underhanded critique of police inefficiency when solving missing person cases, a criticism which is justified but its execution lacking. The key detracting element in Prisoners is the credibility of the antagonist. A criticism could also be raised as to the implied links between suspects which are only sparsely built upon leaving the viewer to complete the jigsaw. Those who enjoy the allure of mystery will be in their element, others will feel the two and a half hour running time to be a little tedious. It is safe to say shaving thirty minutes off would do no harm.
That being said, it is not since Mystic River (2003) that a thriller has made such a searing impact. Guzikowski’s powerful script coupled with fine direction from Villeneueve has leveraged the power of an almighty cast. Jackman, Howard and Gyllenhaal are at the peak of their powers. Fear can hold you prisoner. Hope can set you free. Rarely has the classic Shawkshank Redemption tagline been so fitting.