reviewed by Tom-Tom
Prisoners opens without most of the typical omens that something bad is going to happen. This is mainly due to the documentary-like camerawork which, to at least my untrained eye, is static, fixed. It reminded me of the cinematography of Paranormal Activity. It is Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania and instead of turkey, father (Hugh Jackman) and son shoot a deer for the feast. They take it to the house of a well to do family friend, where the two families prepare and enjoy dinner. There’s a very natural feel to these early scenes, without the hyped up feelings of affection which usually precede tragedy. The family friend, played by Terrence Howard, is already a bit tipsy on wine and jumps out and scares the two younger daughters, one from each family as they come running in the house. The only menacing feeling we get is the camera zooming in on seemingly random spots, a tree, a tool in the basement, as if trying to hint on later scenes. At one point during a walk with the older siblings, a boy and girl from each family, the four come upon a rather ratty RV with a decaying spare tire in the back. The younger girls, being typical little kids, rap on the side and try climbing the rear ladder. The older siblings dissuade them and head back. During the after-feast downtime, the girls ask permission to search for a penny whistle that has been lost. Sometime later, when the adults are enjoying a little too much wine and the older siblings are watching TV, the panic begins. Where are the girls? Here the documentary style fixed camera captures it all in an eerily natural way. Adults checking all rooms, outside. The tension grows and the older son remembers the RV. The hunt has begun.
The driver of the crappy RV turns out to be Paul Dano, who has played at least two memorable characters in the films I’ve seen and voiced another (Little Miss Sunshine, 12 Years A Slave, Where the Wild Things Are) gives a remarkable performance. He’s the poster boy for a movie pedophile: a pale unhealthy palour, skinny, dirty stringy hair, and giant glasses. He’s oh, so soft spoken and polite if a bit slow. It’s revealed later than he has the mental acuity of a 10 year old despite being competent enough to drive an RV.
The cop investigating the kidnapping is named Loki, interestingly enough,(Jake Gyllenhaal who needs no introduction) and has what look like Russian mob tattoos on his neck and knuckles. We see him eating a lonely Thanksgiving dinner at a Chinese restaurant while chatting up the cute waitress using the “What’s your sign?” line but with the Chinese Zodiac. There ‘s a real menacing weight which precedes the introduction of these characters. I’m not sure what it is. Perhaps it is the slowly panning in camera, or the unobtrusive but tense music.
Hugh Jackman also brings even more of his trademark intensity than normal adopting a slight French Canadian accent. His natural delivery of the dialogue brings an authority rather than rankling when he berates Loki for his inability to find the girls or hold the suspect longer than the 48 hour limit. We ourselves doubt Dano’s character’s guilt, until…which causes Jackman to…
I’ve very happy to tell you that there is no torture porn, which I feel is the depraved evidence of a diseased society. Jackman and Howard aren’t members of CTU, they’re two desperate fathers driven to the edge by fear. They get no pleasure in what they do. They just want the precious answers they seek.
But everything is not what it seems. The answers are so wonderfully complex, it takes on a whole different direction in the third act, which is nailbitingly tense, the heaviness reaching its zenith.
In just the last few years, Jake Gyllenhaal has done some of the best work of his career, I’m glad that at least the Hollywood Film Festival honored him with the Best Supporting Award for his deep, realistic portrayal of Detective Loki here. Prisoners is a long slow burner, which requires almost your constant attention. The realism makes the physical confrontation scenes all the more frightening. This isn’t “for the movies” violence. It feels real and scary as the well woven maze of mystery unfolds.