By Joan Ellis
Prisoners springs from a growing trend toward explicit violence in serious movies. The more of it, the better.
When someone is beaten to a pulp in these films, the camera zooms in tight close-up and then lingers. It’s a trend. The box office will measure the public appetite for graphic gore. I suggest you might want to measure your own appetite before you decide to see Prisoners.
For a moment, let’s set aside the question of torture and look at the good in this story that is designed with such intricacy that you’ll be thinking about it long after you leave the theater. It is a puzzle fashioned by craftsmen who drop clues throughout that will fall into place in the final scenes. If you nod off, you won’t get back on track. In full concentration mode, I still missed several crucial twists.
Keller Dover and his wife Grace (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) are sharing the Thanksgiving meal with their friends Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard). By meal’s end, their daughters Anna and Joy (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons) have vanished. The driver (Paul Dano as Alex Jones) of an old RV parked down the street is arrested, released, recaptured and tortured by Dover who is enraged by the pace of the police investigation.
Our preconceived notions are continually upended as suspects pop up all over the dark landscape. Please notice the carefully crafted settings that are wholly convincing as backdrop for a thriller that unfolds in a community of ordinary people unaccustomed to savagery: the police station, the abandoned apartment building, the tract houses.
Credit also a haunting score by Johann Johannsson that, mercifully, does not herald approaching shocks. In mean collusion with the strong cast, writer Aaron Guzikowski and director Denis Villeneuve unreel jolts through the eyes of their characters with a skill that keeps us on edge. There are a few notable misfires that yank us out of the audience trance he has created – a small impossibility here, an inconsistency there. These simply show the strength of his grip.
The bulk of the screen time belongs to Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal as the predators. Both are outstanding as they unleash previously restrained rage in pursuit of their prey. Paul Dano is chillingly effective as the victim, and Melissa Leo marvelous as his aunt. That comes as no surprise given her long-proven ability to disappear thoroughly into whatever character she plays.
I suggest humbly that the acting, writing and directing are so good that most of the graphic gore is unnecessary. Isn’t it possible that without the distraction of that violence, the moral, emotional and psychological dilemmas might have been far more powerful? The real nature of the characters is erased by the ferocious behavior that dominates the story. With the relentless torture of the suspect, the film approaches a state of pointless horror that disrupts the real pleasure of an extremely clever thriller.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.