film reel image

film reel image

Monday, September 30, 2013

Prisoners 2013 * * * Stars

The above picture is the movie title for the film prisonersDirector: Denis Villeneuve
Year: 2013
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars     Cole's Rating: * * * 1/2 Stars
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Jake Gyllenhaal

Produced by busy bee actor Mark Wahlberg and helmed by acclaimed Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is the type of vehicle that is perfect for fall movie going season. It was filmed in Georgia (which I believe, was made to look like a drab part of Pennsylvania), takes place during Thanksgiving, and harbors a non-stop sense of doom and gloom from its opening frame (I think the sun shined maybe once during the entire 2 and a half hour running time). Listen, I'm not going to sugarcoat it for you, this picture is long, feels long, and it really takes its time. Villeneuve uses old school filming techniques and doesn't project anything flashy at all. The story, when it's all said and done however, is somewhat conventional. Therefore, I think it was necessary for the events to be drawn out and dragged through the muck a little. Based on an initial viewing, I realized that Prisoners would have felt like a TV movie and/or a Law and Order episode if the running time was trimmed to say, an hour and a half. Thankfully, it comes off as an extended director's cut (I'm not the only critic that felt this way) and that to a fault, is what makes the flick work. Watching it, I was reminded of a David Fincher film (without Fincher's signature style though) and not just because it starred staggeringly disciplined actor Jake Gyllenhaal. Prisoners is basically a mild spawn of Fincher's Se7en and Zodiac. It's not quite as effectively creepy as those films, but it's definitely good enough to recommend.  

Part kidnapping movie, part police detective character study, and part fatherly vigilante escapade, Prisoners tells the story of two families (neighbors from across the street) who get together on Thanksgiving day. The Birchs (Franklin Birch played by Terrence Howard and Nancy Birch played by Viola Davis who barely registers here) and the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello as Keller and Grace Dover) have a relaxing, calming holiday until their respective daughters wander off and go missing. This then gets the attention of a socially inept area detective (Mr. Loki played with vigor by Jake Gyllenhaal) who garners almost complete control over handling the missing person’s case. As days go by and a potential suspect who might've taken the children gets bounced free, Jackman's angry, frustrated character eventually decides to take the law into his own hands. As the film slowly creeps toward its conclusion, you get small twists and turns (as well as slightly minimal character revelations). You also get to see how important drawing mazes are when it comes to character motivation (I've seen all kinds of thrillers and this plot point was a first for me). 

On the acting front, one thing to notice when viewing Prisoners, is how it pushes aside the other performers in the main cast (Oscar nominees like Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) and puts its main focus on Jackman. Now I'm not saying that Hugh Jackman is a mediocre actor. I just don't think he has the fiery chops to take on such a serious, dramatic role. His fault lies in the extreme overacting and preening to the audience. He seems to be saying, "hey look at me, I should be nominated for an Oscar!" With all the focus on him, the other player's roles become seriously underdeveloped. It gets to the point where you hardly see them anymore. Using little of no background music, there are a lot of carefully set up scenes in Prisoners. To a fault, Jackman appears in almost all of them. Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), the only other actor receiving top billing, takes up almost as much of the shared time. The difference with Gyllenhaal is that he quietly out acts his co-star. His minutes on screen are underplayed but they feel more genuine, more studied (Gyllenhaal's character's facial ticks like eye blinking were a nice touch), and generally more effective. He seems born to play his role. Jackman on the other hand, has one persuasive agent (he probably needs to stick to his strengths which are the X-Men movies).  

As a fall release that feels as if it's a journey or a metaphoric expedition, Prisoners has a teaser of an ending that may leave viewers holding their hands in the air. The over length may also be a factor when it comes to their varied attention spans. I however, found this exercise mildly absorbing and it was able to keep me interested. You may find the opening ten minutes a little muddled and weak in terms of set up, but after that, this exercise will place you in its grip (not too tightly) and not let go. Like I said earlier, Prisoners makes its case for being serviceable because it rides the wave of other crime dramas filling the screen with gloomy, overcast, and rain-drenched sequences. While watching it, you can almost sense that it does hold back just a little. This film doesn't take too many risks and it may not haunt you like it should (Villeneuve's direction is overly careful). But hey, it still gets by though mainly because of said look and Gyllenhaal's icy magnitude. All in all, if you like crime thrillers that take their time and don't try to jerk you around with the camera, Prisoners might just set you "free."

Written by Jesse Burleson


  1. still don't know if we will see it or not. What is the "creep" factor when it comes to scenes with the children? This is my only concern.
    Otherwise, you have given me a lot to think about. I am interested to see if I agree with your Hugh Jackman assessment..

    1. Thank you for visiting the blog. What I meant by the "creep" factor is that the atmosphere of the film is "creepy" and "dark." There isn't any really disturbing stuff when it comes to the children, just the fact that they were kidnapped. As for Jackman, I've never thought of him as a strong actor. In Prisoners, he overdoes it. It just seemed like he was trying to hard, like he wanted everyone to notice him. Jake Gyllenhaal was the real acting triumph in this one.