After you’ve seen a certain number of movies, you start to feel like you can predict an entire movie based on its trailer, just knowing movie conventions. Example Prisoners: After seeing the trailer I felt that I could probably predict the vast majority of the movie, partially felt the trailer was telegraphing too much, but that’s neither here nor there. But, while being able to predict most movies gets a trifle boring sometimes, it means it’s extra awesome when a movie manages to surprise me. And I honestly can’t remember the last time a movie I thought would be so straightforward managed to blindside me so hard.
The plot is concerned with two families with two families, the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), who meet up for Thanksgiving dinner. After dinner, both family’s youngest daughters go out for a walk and promptly disappear without a trace. Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki is assigned to track them down, but the only suspect they manage to turn up is mentally handicapped and is quickly released. As Loki (get it all out of your system now) continues to try and figure out what happened, Mr. Dover becomes increasingly convinced that the first suspect is the right one and kidnaps the mentally handicapped man, with the intent to torture him until he confesses.
It may sound like I’ve said too much right there, but trust me that’s barely more than the setup. The plot is a lot darker, morally complex and intricate than the trailers are giving away. You’d expect, with the way the plot goes, for Loki to be a genius detective in the Will Grahm mold, but he’s just a normal cop, maybe not dumb but certainly not a genius. Of course, given that Jackman’s Keller Dover is literally a deer hunting, God fearing survivalist, with a doomsday bunker in his basement and the skills (and not to mention the will) to set up a self-made torture chamber, complete with a sleep deprivation room, you’d expect he’d turn out to be the Jack Bauer hero of the piece. But the movie is smarter than that, and as Jackman’s character descends more into moral compromise and even outright evil, you begin to realize that there might not be a hero in this movie.
A lot of credit for making this story work has to go to the screenwriters. The screenplay is both incredibly deft and remarkably efficient, setting up characters quickly enough to be established when things start going to hell, but also setting them up in ways that makes the darker character turns that come later feel believable. The Pennsylvania setting is actually a stroke of minor genius, as it gives the entire proceeding a cold and bleak feeling that a lot of other areas in the country wouldn’t. And while the mystery is perhaps a tiny bit too complicated for its own good (although at least it manages to avoid the Murder She Wrote issue), it’s well structured and I imagine the actual resolution will manage to knock more than a few people on their ass.
But as numerous movies have proven in the past, a great screenplay is nothing if you haven’t got good actors and all of the actors here are going above and beyond. Gyllenhaal is a good actor and he’s been doing great at playing cops lately, his naturally soft affect allowing him to remain calm when everyone is freaking out around him. All of the parents manage to play their parts well, in particular Maria Bello, but Jackman is the true standout. His character arc is easily the darkest and most brutal of the bunch, forcing us to watch as his ‘father knows best’ cliché is stripped down to nothing, until only a thug remains, who’s every action seems to do nothing but make things worse and he sells it all the way to hilt. It’s easily one of the best turns of his career, the kind of incredibly dark performance that mainstream name actors almost never get to give and the entire movie is worth seeing just for it. And before I move on, special credit must go to Paul Dano for choosing an atypical (for Hollywood) take on a mentally challenged character.
Getting beyond all that though, there are some minor issues. The eventual reveal of the killer and their motivations feels like it would be more at home in a Thomas Harris knockoff than in this stark and grounded detective story. I’m hesitant to declare that a complete problem as it seems like that might part of the point, to drop the kind of morbid, sadistic serial killer that you usually see in Thomas Harris or James Patterson books into the middle of an otherwise real world and see how everyone reacts (The answer? Not well.) But even if that is the case, the two elements don’t entirely gel, not enough to cause major problems but enough to make me notice.
I don’t think anyone, least of all me, expected this movie to be this good, especially given that it’s a mid-September release, a time usually reserved for dumping grounds. But the fact remains, Prisoners is one of the more intense and movie-going experiences I’ve had this year and easily the best thing in theaters right now. Do not miss this one.
Elessar is a 23 year old Alaskan born cinephile and he wonders if getting to be in this is why Jackman seemed so much more awake in The Wolverine.