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Telluride Review: 'Prisoners' Starring Hugh Jackman & Jake Gyllenhaal

Reviews
by Rodrigo Perez
August 31, 2013 9:37 AM
19 Comments
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Prisoners

Director Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal are on the precipice of having a tremendous fall film festival season. Arriving in just a few short days is their upoming collaboration, “Enemy,” a terrific psychological doppelganger thriller that will premiere next week in Toronto. But first up, the pair (along with co-lead Hugh Jackman) unleashed their first collabo, “Prisoners,” at Telluride last night as one of the “surprise” screenings of the festival. And if this dark, intense and engrossing drama is any indication of what’s to come, it bodes very well for future collaborations.

What lengths will you go to to protect your loved ones? What boundaries will you cross? These are the questions raised in Villeneuve’s fifth feature, a brooding, visceral and emotionally bruising examination of trauma, loss, sin and deliverance. On a cold and wet Thanksgiving evening in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, Keller Dover (Jackman), a loving father, hunter and be-prepared-at-all-times survivalist, and his wife (Maria Bello) have the Birches (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) over for their annual turkey dinner. Laughs and good times are had, but in the blink of an eye, their evening goes amiss.

Suddenly, the couples’ children, who went off to play next door, are missing and nowhere to be found. As the families comb the neighborhood, collected concern grows into alarm, trembles into panic and then erupts into a fever pitch of all-out terror and desperation. One small lead, a junkheap RV seen near the scene of the would-be abduction, proves fruitful. A singularly determined loner cop, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives on the scene where he finds a panicked suspect who tries, unsuccessfully, to flee. The suspect is Alex Frost (Paul Dano), a mentally impaired invalid who swears he knows nothing of the crime, and it’s even unclear whether he understands what’s going on.

Prisoners

Released after 48 hours back into the arms of his concerned aunt (Melissa Leo) due to lack of evidence, Dover’s impatience, fear and frustration begins to clash with the authorities’ inability to charge the young man. His escalating worry for his daughter's life—knowing the longer they wait, the less of a chance she has—soon takes a violent turn. And then a morally disturbing and brutal form of torture and vigilantism takes hold, from which the father can never return. Far from the feel-good movie of the year, “Prisoners” is dark, disturbing, white-knuckle stuff with an unnerving shade of dread blanketed over almost every frame. Every parent’s worst nightmare, “Prisoners” connects thanks to some masterclass filmmaking in suspense, terror and intrigue. Watching the emotional toll the abductions take on the families, law enforcement and community around them is particularly brutal and affecting.

Already boasting a Foreign-Language Oscar nomination for “Incendies” and a string of strong independent features, Villeneuve continues to prove his deeply confident footing in modern day cinema, bringing intelligence and muscular and mannered nuance to a somber and extremely tense studio drama that doesn’t deign to ever spell things out (the ending is probably the most bold studio finale we’ve seen in ages and seemed to even puzzle some). His precision and control over tone, pitch and mood—much of which is gripping and portentous—is immaculate. Villeneuve knows where to place a camera for maximum effect, and when the camera chooses to move it often produces chills. The director also knows how to create an unrelenting tight tension that quivers with rapt emotion. Symbols quietly burn on the edges of alarmingly foreboding compositions, and one particular oh-so-subtle and simple camera push-in is breathlessly haunting and masterful. Top-flight above-the-liners support Villeneuve in his deeply concentrated and meticulous aims, but Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins ("True Grit," "Skyfall") steals the show with some breathtakingly layered compositions and the disquieting atmospheres he drapes around the picture.

Prisoners Jake Gyllenhaal Hugh Jackman

Jackman roars with a Wolverine-like rage and intensity in frustration at the ineffectuality of the police working his daughter’s case, but there’s an authentic, emotionally connected and anguished howl to his pain that he could never access with Logan. Like “Incendies” before it, “Prisoners” is emotionally draining as the family, the detectives and everyone involved is put through the wringer, but it’s an all-consuming ride that’s ultimately compelling, if not slightly exhausting. While Jackman is more than genuine as the father driven to the ends of his frayed tether to find his daughter—and a few particular scenes with his son are heartbreakingly emotional—it’s Gyllenhaal as the in-his-world, indefatigable detective that takes over as the heart of movie in the end with an impassioned but controlled tenacity that never asks to be applauded as heroic.

Written by Aaron Guzikowski, his script topped the Black List in 2009, and was all the rage that year, with names like Bryan Singer, Mark Wahlberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and more attached in various incarnations. And it’s easy to see why. But while taut and riveting, one of film’s minor issues is that it has so much ground to cover on the page that it threatens to unravel the movie. For its first hour and a half, “Prisoners” is top-notch, but credulity strains slightly when the labyrinthine twists of the film’s third act become a little knotty. But a rousing, heart-stopping finish plus the intensity of the material wins out in the end.

Prisoners

At two and a half hours, “Prisoners” is grueling and also slightly saggy at the two-thirds mark, but credit Villeneuve for knowing when to relax and then tighten the vice along the way. While some second act crime conceits deter some of the film’s momentum, it’s also crucial to the layers of this complex thriller (and personally, it’s difficult to say where one would begin if they had to shave scenes off this movie). “Prisoners” navigates tricky two-hander POV issues too. While it’s ostensibly a movie about the lengths a man will go to protect his family, the drama actually ends up seamlessly passing the baton to the resolute and emotionally invested detective who vows to solve the case and bring the families’ daughters home alive. The movie also quietly foreshadows much of this transition along the way so the hand-off isn’t jarring.

Featuring a terrific supporting cast, everyone brings their A-Game, but Bello as the destroyed mother and Davis as the matriarch who puts her faith in Dover, are especially strong. “Prisoners” is difficult, wrenching subject matter, and it will be interesting to see how audiences (and Oscar voters for that matter) respond. The picture is often graphic and pulls no punches in its disturbing violence, but its unflinching nature gives it a memorable sear that won't soon be forgotten. A first-rate thriller with a blackened bite, “Prisoners” may not be the easiest or most escapist sit for the casual moviegoer, but it’s this kind of filmmaking and storytelling that brings folks like us flocking to the theaters year after year. [B+/A-]

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19 Comments

  • Belgian girl | May 26, 2014 12:09 AMReply

    so big deal - someone transposed the names of who ate where. Come on "Buddy" that's no reason to bash a really good review of this movie. Maybe his assistant misread - I think you're nit-picking a bit here... I just saw this movie and totally agree with Mr. Perez' excellent review.

  • Roxanne | December 25, 2013 9:45 PMReply

    Near the end of prisoners why does the little black girl sat hugh jackmon had the tape?

  • buddy | November 10, 2013 1:41 PMReply

    'On a cold and wet Thanksgiving evening in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, Keller Dover (Jackman), a loving father, hunter and be-prepared-at-all-times survivalist, and his wife (Maria Bello) have the Birches (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) over for their annual turkey dinner.' It's not an insignificant detail that the Birches actually have the Dovers over for dinner. It's hard to take someone's critical opinion seriously when they mess up such an obvious plot point.

    'Released after 48 hours back into the arms of his concerned aunt (Melissa Leo) due to lack of evidence, Dover’s impatience, fear and frustration begins to clash with the authorities’ inability to charge the young man.' Dover was released after 48 hours? Let's get some basic grammar rules under control here.

  • lee | September 20, 2013 3:57 PMReply

    Wow really good movie! I was held in suspense the whole time, and the end left me in suspense... Hugh Jackman and Terrance Howard were amazing and showed plenty of emotion...Although there were some parts that were just unnecessary and piontless, This has to probably be movie of the year.. Finally, a movie that tells a story and elicits emotion..Unlike Many of the other movies out there.

  • lee | September 20, 2013 3:59 PM

    Oops I meant to include the detective, that man always was a great actor

  • TheGrave | September 11, 2013 12:01 AMReply

    This guy seems to have a hard on for Jake Gyllenhaal or something, as pretty much all the reviews I've read have said that Jackman is the stand out, although there have been some praise for Gyllenhaal. Do I detect a hint of bias in this review?

  • Bilingual | September 1, 2013 12:59 PMReply

    Kudos to French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve for his acclaimed body of work and his ability to direct films in French and English. Excited to see his upcoming compelling films.

  • Sheyla | September 1, 2013 12:57 PMReply

    It doesn't getting to Oscar, sorry

  • Alan B | August 31, 2013 10:19 PMReply

    "But first up, the pair (along with co-lead Hugh Jackman) unleashed their first collabo"

    Oh for the love of ... NO ONE asked for or wanted this abbreviation, so please stop. Now.

  • MIKE | August 31, 2013 7:15 PMReply

    Melissa Leo is amazing in this movie and virtually unrecognizable once again, VERY different character from her role in THE FIGHTER.... will definitely be in the supporting actress race once again.

  • MIKE | September 2, 2013 2:19 PM

    What's with the sour-intended post, Busted? I was lucky enough to catch this at Telluride and also read the script months ago when it was on the Blacklist. What's the big deal?

  • busted! | September 1, 2013 6:35 AM

    It's pretty clear that MIKE hasn't seen the movie, he just pretends to, repeating the only thing that's been written about her part (yet).
    Ask him about the specifics, the catch of Melissa Leo's role in "Prisoners" and MIKE won't be able to answer you. Much less about David Dastmalchian, who plays a minor role.

  • Brandon | September 1, 2013 12:39 AM

    What role does David Dastmalchian (Dark Knight, Sushi Girl) play in this movie? I've been waiting for him to have a breakout role for years!

  • Jamie | August 31, 2013 2:40 PMReply

    Can we please dispense with all references to "Wolverine". This is a great actor in top form who finally has a generally praised movie and script to bring that out. Enough with any and all way too easy to reach cheap shots. Give the man his due!!

  • oogle monster | August 31, 2013 2:05 PMReply

    Wow. I can't wait to see Prisoners now. Also, you guys have had some really great coverage this festival season (and last year). Keep up the good work. I keep refreshing my page for more reviews!

  • Scott | August 31, 2013 12:18 PMReply

    I hope this bodes well for Denis V although I get the feeling he himself is not impressed with HW politics of film making and promotion. It would be nice to have a fresh perspective in film making where the characters are real and have depth.

  • RP | August 31, 2013 4:59 PM

    Wait til you see the next one.

  • Paula | August 31, 2013 11:36 AMReply

    OMG, I am getting so excited for the fall film season! I wish I was at all these fests!

  • Alex P | August 31, 2013 10:10 AMReply

    Wow, Variety, THR, you guys, everyone is giving this mad raves so far.

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