Film review: Prisoners

posted at 9:31 am on September 22, 2013 by Ed Morrissey

The Dovers and the Birches get together for a big Thanksgiving dinner, but the families won’t stay whole for long.  Their youngest daughters disappear that afternoon, and the older teens in the families remember that they seemed pretty interested in a motor home that has suddenly disappeared.  When police find the RV with no trace of the girls, they have to let the driver go.  One father won’t let it go at that, though, and decides to take matters into his own hands.  How far would you go to fight for your child — and would you risk your soul to get her back?

Prisoners offers audiences a taut thriller with plenty of surprises, even if the run time seems a little long at 153 minutes.  Nothing is quite what it seems, not even the families of the victims — and at times, it’s arguable as to who the victims are.  The answers don’t come easy, not for the characters and not for the audience, which will find the situation more ambiguous than one might presume.  After all, we have seen this scenario unfold in morality plays, from old Twilight Zone episodes to Death Wish, Gran Torino, and every vengeance film made over the last several decades.  Prisoners manages to find a path through that maze of well-trodden ground and discern a different way out, one that may not prove entirely satisfactory but has the virtue of original thought.

With that said, there were a few problems with the film.  Since those may tend to tip off important plot points, I’ll post them below the rest of the review so that readers can decide to skip reading it.  Besides the film length and the heavy-handed way that the film handles Christianity (see below), though, Prisoners is very satisfying as a thriller, although at times the film tries to fit a little too much into the mystery.

The cinematography of Prisoners has a gritty and realistic feel to it, a bit reminiscent of Silence of the Lambs in that way (and also in its pacing and plot structure, too).  Thankfully, director Denis Villaneuve spares us from Shaky Cam and Ultra-Close-Ups, opting for more traditional camerawork and leaving us within the story. The cast is universally excellent, but the film rests primarily on Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, one of the two fathers, and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki.  Paul Dano as Alex Jones, the driver of the RV, provides an almost-inexplicably creepy performance in a critical role, and makes it work well.  By the end, audiences will wish they got to see a little more of Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the Birches and Maria Bello as Keller’s wife Grace.  Melissa Leo turns in a masterful performance as Alex’s aunt, who disappears so totally into the role that I had to check IMDB to see which character she played.

It’s not a perfect film, but Prisoners does feature some original thought and real surprises in its twists.  That plus the performances should outweigh its shortcomings for most viewers.   On the 5-point Hot Air scale, Prisoners gets a 4:

  • 5 – Full price ticket
  • 4 – Matinee only
  • 3 – Wait for Blu-Ray/DVD/PPV rental or purchase
  • 2 – Watch it when it hits Netflix/cable
  • 1 – Avoid at all costs

Prisoners is rated R for “disturbing violent content including torture,” and take that warning seriously.  The language is also raw, but that’s probably more of a secondary consideration for the R rating.  Absolutely not appropriate for children and teens.

 

 

 

 

 

** Some spoilers **

First, there are a couple of procedural points.  Police generally don’t carry weapons into interrogation rooms, and the film shows why at one point.  Second, in a sequence near the end of the film, Detective Loki decides to drive a victim to the hospital at breakneck speed on a snowy night while being injured himself — rather than just call for an ambulance and back-up.  The sequence was exciting but silly in context. Quite a few of the actions of the police seem rather odd during the film in ways necessary to service the plot, which makes the film look a little contrived at times. There is a disturbing sequence with a dog that I would imagine was either CGI or the cause of complaint for animal-welfare groups.

A bigger issue for Christian viewers will be the depiction of believers in this film, especially Keller Dover.  The film opens with Hugh Jackman saying the Lord’s Prayer as Keller and his son Ralph stalk a deer on Thanksgiving morning, as the angle slowly widens to show the rifle and with the gunshot coming right after the “Amen.” Keller turns out to be a survivalist, and of course he’s the one who decides to torture Alex, praying at times while contemplating what else Keller can do to him. Furthermore, we get a Catholic priest as a sex offender, natch, who has an even darker secret that plays a crucial role in the film. (This is, of course, a checkbox for Hollywood films.)  In contrast, Detective Loki is the voice of reason and rationality, whose Masonic ring gets a lot of screen time. (Loki is a reference to the prankster Norse god, but perhaps that’s just irony here.)  Even with that, though, the film offers an intriguing look at spiritual warfare and at redemption — note the plural of Prisoners well — even if it’s a muddled and inconsistent look at it.


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Wait a minute . . . the left told me that “torture” is when you make someone stand in a cold room, or you pour water over their face while monitoring them for any signs of injury . . . that doesn’t sound like it would be disturbing to watch. Are you saying that the *real* definition of torture might be something very different????

SoRight on September 22, 2013 at 9:53 AM

(Loki is a reference to the prankster Norse god, but perhaps that’s just irony here.)

Loki is also a fire god, in case that is relevant.

Count to 10 on September 22, 2013 at 10:04 AM

A hundred Christians slaughtered in Pakistan by church bombing muslims, as the worldwide Obamocide of Christians rolls on. Hot Air? …crickets.

AmeriCuda on September 22, 2013 at 10:07 AM

AmeriCuda on September 22, 2013 at 10:07 AM

Maybe you should wait for the next post going up. I write the NFL post and the movie reviews on Saturday and sleep in on Sunday. It’s the only day I get to do that.

Ed Morrissey on September 22, 2013 at 10:17 AM

Saw the movie Friday. Ed, in addition to the things you mentioned my mind kind of went hmm? at the name of the character who was one of the most screwed up in the head. Alex Jones? Really? No way anyone was making a point there eh?

manyears on September 22, 2013 at 10:24 AM

Ed Morrissey on September 22, 2013 at 10:17 AM

Understandable, don’t forget to mention Obama’s friends in AlQaeda having a chimp-out in Kenya.

abobo on September 22, 2013 at 10:25 AM

manyears on September 22, 2013 at 10:24 AM

I thought about that when watching the movie, but kind of dismissed it. After I wrote this review, I read others on Rotten Tomatoes (I never read them before writing mine), and noticed that several other reviewers made the same connection. Actually, I think that if the filmmakers wanted to make that point they would have named Jackman’s paranoid-survivalist character after him, but possibly they wanted to be more subtle.

Ed Morrissey on September 22, 2013 at 10:31 AM

Loki, masonic rings, Alex Jones, Catholic intrigue – This movie is gonna cause someone already messed in the head to lose it, lol.

abobo on September 22, 2013 at 10:32 AM

but has the virtue of original thought.

Worth seeing for that reason alone.

Cleombrotus on September 22, 2013 at 10:34 AM

How far would you go to fight for your child — and would you risk your soul to get her back?

As far as it took. My soul would be fine.

cozmo on September 22, 2013 at 10:38 AM

cozmo on September 22, 2013 at 10:38 AM

Exactly. You risk your soul if you DON’T try all the way.

Cleombrotus on September 22, 2013 at 10:49 AM

Maybe you should wait for the next post going up. I write the NFL post and the movie reviews on Saturday and sleep in on Sunday. It’s the only day I get to do that.

Ed Morrissey on September 22, 2013 at 10:17 AM

C’mon, Ed, didn’t you realize that you should be posting 24/7, what with the big bucks all we commenters shell out in pay and benefits for you? ;-)

TXUS on September 22, 2013 at 10:50 AM

153 minutes? Absurd. But this is the trend. Filmmakers have lost all sense of structural and storytelling discipline. Longer means better and more “important.” Except that it isn’t either. It generally means worse and sloppier. I have an extreme bias against any movie, certainly thrillers and dramas, over 120 minutes.

rrpjr on September 22, 2013 at 11:23 AM

rrpjr on September 22, 2013 at 11:23 AM

I don’t mind longer run times for truly epic films, and wish studios (and theaters) were more open to them. In this case, though, they could have tightened it up considerably, perhaps by getting rid of some of the torture scenes and some of the nonsense I’ve already noted.

Ed Morrissey on September 22, 2013 at 11:26 AM

153 minutes? Absurd. But this is the trend. Filmmakers have lost all sense of structural and storytelling discipline. Longer means better and more “important.” Except that it isn’t either. It generally means worse and sloppier. I have an extreme bias against any movie, certainly thrillers and dramas, over 120 minutes.

rrpjr on September 22, 2013 at 11:23 AM

I agree – many directors & filmmakers think too highly of themselves and make unnecessarily long movies. The “director’s cut” often makes an already insufferable film even longer!

2 hours or less is my general rule as well. It better be really good to exceed that length. Like The Green Mile, for example.

22044 on September 22, 2013 at 11:33 AM

And, I take it, the rating is a 5 — as in “wait for it in the bargain bin for less than $5″

unclesmrgol on September 22, 2013 at 2:16 PM

A hundred Christians slaughtered in Pakistan by church bombing muslims, as the worldwide Obamocide of Christians rolls on. Hot Air? …crickets.

AmeriCuda on September 22, 2013 at 10:07 AM

wordpress is free, link us to your posts on it.

dmacleo on September 22, 2013 at 3:04 PM

I saw it and enjoyed it quite a bit and I will agree it was refreshing to see some original thought.
As to the spiritual aspect (while trying to remain as spoiler free as possible) in the end the people of faith were vindicated and the people who had lost their faith were not.

Kataklysmic on September 22, 2013 at 3:15 PM

Hugh Jackman is a man-made global warming adtivist. Hugh Jackman is an advocate for marriage equality.

Jake Gyllenhaal is a Hollywierd liberal who has appeared in Rock the Vote advertising, campaigns for the Democratic Party, promotes the policies of environmental wackos and the climate change nuts

I prefer not to spend my money to stuff the pockets of the Hollywierd liberals. I enjoy a good movie like the rest of most people, but I also try to stick to my principles. I think man-made global warming is not only a hoax, but it will cost hundreds, if not thousands of jobs, across the country. Many. many people who are living paycheck to paycheck will have a battle in the coming years trying to pay their utility bills for heating and air conditioning. And the Hollyweird liberals will stay warm and toasty in the cool months, and cool and refreshed in the warm months. They will be able to afford any utility bill thrown at them.

As far as marriage equality goes, it will never stop at marriage equality. The gay activists in this country will not stop until everyone, regardless of religious beliefs, will be forced by law to accept their lifestlye. They wouldn’t compromise on the institution of marriage and they won’t compromise on anything else in the future. I am for freedom and liberty, but it is a two-way street. I could care less what gays do in the bedroom, who they love, and if they want a committed civil union with the full benefits of heterosexual marriage. I do object to any law that forces a baker, photographer, florist, etc. to do business with a group of people whose lifestyles and beliefs are in conflict with their own religious, or otherwise, beliefs.

I believe that conservatives and others can send a message to the Hollyweird liberals that their public political beliefs and activism can affect their pocketbooks and livings much in the same manner as they try to boycott and shut down conservative blogs, radio and TV personalities. Pass the popcorn, please. (:

metroryder on September 22, 2013 at 5:26 PM

I believe that conservatives and others can send a message to the Hollyweird liberals that their public political beliefs and activism can affect their pocketbooks and livings much in the same manner as they try to boycott and shut down conservative blogs, radio and TV personalities. Pass the popcorn, please. (:

metroryder on September 22, 2013 at 5:26 PM

As you say

The organizers of a boycott against the upcoming movie “Ender’s Game” are not satisfied with the filmmakers’ attempts to make amends with the gay community. Their campaign, “Skip Ender’s Game,” protests the anti-LGBT views of Orson Scott Card, the original book’s author, who stands to profit from the film.

“Regardless of everyone’s good intentions, they still cut this guy a check,” says Jono Jarrett, a founding member of the boycott’s sponsor, the “queer geek community” organization Geeks Out. …

The organizers of a boycott against the upcoming movie “Ender’s Game” are not satisfied with the filmmakers’ attempts to make amends with the gay community. Their campaign, “Skip Ender’s Game,” protests the anti-LGBT views of Orson Scott Card, the original book’s author, who stands to profit from the film. …
The boycott’s organizers claim their concern is not the with the art itself, but with where the money goes – specifically to Card, though details of the contract he has with the studio for the book’s rights are still unknown. …
“It’s about my dollar, and I don’t want a single cent of the money I work so hard to make to go to that man, after what he said,” Jarrett says. “He is welcome to his opinion but he has no right to my money.”

But the situation is not just a question of supporting only the people who agree with you on a particular principle; it is (what else?) more nuanced:

Even Orson Scott Card addressed the controversy in statement saying, “Ender’s Game is set more than a century in the future and has nothing to do with political issues that did not exist when the book was written in 1984.” He called the issue of gay marriage “moot” with the Supreme Court’s strike down of the Defense of Marriage Act in June. “Now it will be interesting to see whether the victorious proponents of gay marriage will show tolerance toward those who disagreed with them when the issue was still in dispute,” he said.

But even those not involved in the film who consider themselves allies of the LGBT community have grappled with the decision to boycott. While some have made the case for boycott, others are not so sure it’s the best way to show their support for gay rights. Think Progress’ Alyssa Rosenberg has written extensively about being torn about supporting the film, as she calls the book a “foundational text.” Dustin Lance Black – writer of the film “Milk” about LGBT hero Harvey Milk – called the boycott “misguided,” arguing that it targets an industry that is overwhelmingly LGBT-friendly. A New York Times editorial said, “what Geeks Out has in mind is closer to blacklisting.”

Let the Culture Wars begin.

AesopFan on September 22, 2013 at 5:48 PM

Actually, Loki arguably made the correct decision to drive the child to the ER himself rather than wait for an ambulance to come in a rural county. After all, the kid was injected with a sedative or worse. BTW, as Loki was rushing to the ER I noticed the heavy traffic in the streets. Where did all that traffic come from given the county was portrayed as small, budget-starved (at the least the police department) and remote the entire film? True, I noticed they had to have a priest as a pedophile (though the link in the film was very subtle). But I do think the film treated survivalists with remarkable respect from a Hollywood perspective.

stop2think on September 23, 2013 at 7:41 AM