PRISONERS Review: Who’s the Hunter, Who’s the Game?
Whether we go alone, with a date, or in a group, the one thing we always bring with us to the movies is ourselves. By that, I mean that in addition to being flesh-and-blood creatures, we are also an accumulation of personal experiences, and we watch movies through the prism of those experiences.
Someone who has taught presidential history will view films like Lincoln or The Butler through one prism. An alcoholic will view The Lost Weekend through another prism. A single girl living in New York City will view Frances Ha through yet a different prism. This individualism is never a bad thing; it allows the same piece of art to be viewed in endlessly different ways.
When it comes to my own prism and Prisoners, I viewed the film as a father of daughters and as a parent who prays that the worst nightmare any parent can face – child abduction – never comes true.
Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are neighborhood friends in rural Pennsylvania who are sharing a Thanksgiving meal together at the Birch’s house. In addition to their respective teen children, each couple has a little girl and those two girls are the bestest of friends. Once the Turkey Day meal is done, the younger kids ask to go to the Dovers’ house to look for a lost whistle. The parents allow it, but when the girls never return, and when precursory searches of both houses and the immediate neighborhood turn up empty, panic sets in. The police are called, and Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned the case.
Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the driver of an old camper that was seen near the scene of the disappearance, is the prime suspect. Without solid evidence, the police are required to release him, which they do, into the custody of his aunt, Holly Jones (Melissa Leo). Frustrated by what appears to be ineptitude and a lack of progress by the police, Keller takes matters into his own hands. His methods are so violent, Franklin and Nancy want no part of it, and Keller keeps the truth hidden from Grace, who has become bedridden with anxiety and prescriptions. When a second suspect materializes, matters become that much more complicated.
The opening scene of Prisoners sets the tone for the remainder of the film: Keller Dover recites the Lord’s Prayer shortly before his son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette), shoots his first deer. On the drive back home, the prey still fresh in the bed of the pickup, Keller reminds his son what his father taught him, which is to always be ready – that when disaster hits and the normalcy of life is upended, be ready to handle it. The context of the lesson is specific to being able to hunt (as opposed to relying on markets for food) and having a significant volume of supplies stockpiled (which Keller has in the basement).
Religion. Hunter and prey. Situational readiness. That’s not just the film in a nutshell, it’s Dover Keller in a nutshell, too, and with his work here, Jackman has clearly raised his game. The role looks simple – what father wouldn’t be outraged and desperate enough to do anything to save his child, even if it means breaking the law or harming another? But the character is more complex than that. Despite his survival skills, he is still a man of faith, and he must reconcile his actions with his faith. (There is a wonderful part in the film where Jackman starts reciting the Lord’s Prayer again but cannot bring himself to say, “… as we forgive those who trespass against us.”)
Deeper than that, though, is Keller not as a man of God, but Keller as a man. This is rural Pennsylvania we’re talking about, where the Second Amendment is the first amendment and camouflage is the new black. There is a certain level of male pride at work here that isn’t a matter of being macho because that suggests overinflation, but it is a matter of being adequately masculine in that the patriarch is expected to provide and protect. The economy has made providing a great challenge (Keller is a self-employed carpenter feeling the pinch), and now these circumstances have added another failure to his masculinity scorecard. To him, the kidnapping of his child is as much his fault as it is anyone else’s. Jackman shows that pathos and inner-torture throughout the film, from moments of abject rage to exhausted desperation.
Terrence Howard and the rest of the cast (outside of Gyllenhaal, whom I will get to) are solid. As a teacher, Howard’s character brings the same blue collar sensibility that Jackman’s brings, but has none of the rage, which offers a nice balance when it comes down to “two wrongs don’t make a right” moments. The wives are mostly underutilized, with Bello being relegated to playing a sedated mess for most of the film. I like Davis as something of a Bello/Howard character hybrid; I just wish there had been more of her.
On the creepy side of the street is Dano as the primary suspect in the girls’ abduction. He plays Alex Jones as a scared and confused 10-year-old boy trapped in an adult’s body. He has very little dialogue, and that only adds to how off-putting his character is. It also fuels Keller’s rage. Melissa Leo gets a nice amount of screen time and plays the frail, doting aunt exceptionally well. And David Dastmalchian, as second suspect Bob Taylor, is the opposite of Jones: he’s an adult who wants to be trapped in a 10-year-old’s body, which is just as unsettling, if not more so.
As for Gyllenhaal, he plays Detective Loki with an excellent level of intensity. I just wish I knew what he was intense about. The Loki character is the film’s biggest flaw because he is never truly developed. Two things stand out to me when I think of Loki. The first are his tattoos. Loki has visible tattoos on his neck, his hands, and his fingers. They are never explained, yet are so prominent that surely they represent something that will give us insight into this cop who has solved every case he has ever worked.
This leads to the second big thing: Loki also has a chip on his shoulder so huge that he is outwardly and fiercely insubordinate to his captain … and his captain just sits there and takes it. It doesn’t make sense. Perfect record or no, you do not tell your boss “go f*** yourself” and come away without even being challenged or reprimanded. This puzzled me every time the two clashed. Loki also makes mention of having spent some of his young years in a foster home, another detail I thought would be expanded upon but wasn’t. He’s your Number Two name on the marquee. He can’t go this unexplored.
Cliché hinders the film a little as well. Loki has a serendipitous “a ha!” moment that I’ve seen in made-for-tv fare. Also, while religion is beneficial to the Keller character, it is used as an evil motive in other areas of the film. The problem is that it is so loosely explained that it suggests this great thriller was 90% constructed and someone said, “Hey wait. What’s their motivation?”
But the film’s highlight, the one thing I found to be most satisfying after all 153 minutes (in fairness, it didn’t feel that long), is what director Denis Villeneuve DIDN’T do: he didn’t exploit the children. It would have been so very easy to show these two adorable little girls (Erin Gerasimovich as Anna Dover and Kyla Drew Simmons as Joy Birch) in various states of grizzly and horrific peril. We’re in an age of moviemaking where “shock value” is more about shock than value. Rather than take this route – rather than even get near this route – Villeneuve instead leaves it all to the adults. There is one exception in the film (no spoilers here) where you see the girls being held captive, and that’s it.
I wanted to specifically call this out because (a) it proves you don’t need to shock to make a good movie; and (b) the idea of seeing the children in peril is what worried me most when it came to watching this film through the prism of fatherhood, and it is something that might keep some people from watching it entirely. Don’t get me wrong – even the idea of children in peril is unsettling, but not seeing it makes the film easier to consume, and you should consume it. Coming out of another summer of popcorn fare, Prisoners is a flawed but captivating movie for grown-ups about a very grown-up subject, and it will move you regardless of what prism you watch it through.