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Prisoners movie review: Prisoners of darkness

Villeneuve's new film is impressive work of depth

The Spectrum


Release Date:Sept. 20

Studio:Warner Brothers


The first shot is of bare, grey, cold woods covered in snow. The camera begins to zoom back from a placid image of a deer as we hear the Lord's Prayer being recited until the image is positioned in the center of the frame between the two heads of a father and son pointing a gun at it. When the prayer is finished, they shoot the deer and it collapses to its death. The father then tells his son the most important lesson his grandfather ever taught him was to "be ready."

The drab and desolate landscape of rural Pennsylvania is where Dennis Villeneuve's latest film, Prisoners, is set - where it is tradition for fathers to train their sons to become hunters, and where a sense of human tragedy hides in plain sight. This movie captures the soul of emotional terror in a way that goes beyond simple notions of realism - it is a stylized expression of psychological complexity.

Written by Aaron Guzikowski and shot by British cinematographer Roger Deakins, the film accomplishes an inherent sense of collaborative effort that contributes to its well-executed conveyance of discordant lives brought together by an emergency.

Once Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, Les Mis?(c)rables) and his son, Ralph (Dylan Minnette, Save Me) kill the deer, they return home before their family goes to the house of their friends, their neighbors, for Thanksgiving dinner. And Dover proudly brings his latest hunting conquest as his contribution to the group's meal.

Each of the families has six-year-old girls: Anna Dover and Joy Birch. As the meal is being prepared, they go for a walk outside with Ralph and they begin to climb on a parked RV until Ralph realizes someone is in there. He directs them back inside.

The meal is carefree until it all goes wrong. Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard, The Butler) plays the trumpet and takes requests with his wife Nancy (Viola Davis, Beautiful Creatures) alongside him, acting playfully embarrassed. Mrs. Dover (Maria Bello, Grown Ups 2) suggests he play something by Bruce Springsteen; because Keller loves him much so much he even used to dress like him. In the film, Jackson looks a little bit like Springsteen when he had a goatee after he split up with the E Street Band - a period Springsteen notes for its turbulence and sense of mental unease. He's called it his "lost period."

But the invocation is a tender reminder that this story is taking place amidst the kind working-class life and yearning for escape that Springsteen has sung about. And what's about to happen next is a catastrophe inside this widespread form of American life.

As the adults are playing carelessly in the living room, the girls wander about. When the adults begin to notice the girls' absence, Keller starts to look around. First, he checks the whole house, then the neighborhood. Soon, Ralph tells him about the RV. When they go to check on it, the RV is gone. They then realize this is no coincidence - the girls are, too.

Jake Gyllenhaal (End of Watch) plays Loki, an adept local detective. He is intense and methodical; he is driven by a sense of obsession. A police unit locates the RV and Loki makes the arrest of Alex Jones (Paul Dano, Looper) - a half-witted young man with an unfortunate past. He has the IQ of a 10-year-old. But there is no evidence of the girls. Two days later, Loki has to let him go.

For Keller, this necessity of legality is tantalizingly insufficient. There is strong reason to believe Jones knows where Anna is. And Keller, a man deluged with a sense of aggression, takes it upon himself to get real answers. One night, while Jones is walking his aunt's dog, Keller abducts him at gunpoint and takes him to an abandoned building. He thinks he can torture him to the point of cooperation.

What ensues is beyond an exploration into the efficacy of Keller's method - which runs parallel to Loki's investigative work, and occupies one of the main storylines of this intricate, multifaceted narrative; the film becomes an examination of ethics, a meditation on the nature of humanity, a reflection of what kind of behavior people are capable of when in pain.

It's about what happens to moral values in the face of emotional crisis.

Technically, the film is superlatively executed. Villeneuve and Deakins play to angling every shot so we consider the angles of perspective in question.

As we consider each possibility, the camera imposes a distinct attention to framing as each character frames his or her own story and moral decisions. And every image in the frame is in super-sharp focus, and it prompts you to think, thematically, what's in focus, and what isn't.

Certainly, Keller makes us ponder the philosophical conundrum: Does the end justify the means?

Everything is carried by an eerie score, and happens amidst dreary, moist physical surfaces. Deakins, perhaps best known for his collaboration with the Coen brothers, has become a master of shooting stark landscapes. The photography is an invocation to the meaning of the film's title: everyone involved is a prisoner of their own darkness.

Gyllenhaal really gives a stellar performance and is beginning to show he can deliver these less-is-more type roles. He's bound by fidelity to his own code, which only he knows.

And Jackman finally seems able to exert explosion without being overemphatic. He's harnessed the kind of rage central to an American machismo mentality. It comes when you can't control what you desperately feel you need to: your own destiny, and that of your family.

Prisonersis the kind of masterful thriller that rarely comes out of the American cinema. One that has a feeling of unfolding revelation, where solving the mystery is not viewer's main concern - the content is in the details. But here the mystery is engaging and it doesn't end up tied together in a conclusive knot, but in a tapestry of nightmare realism.

With Villeneuve and Deakins, the camera is the eye of consciousness. Its presence in the lives of these characters leaves you thinking not whether they are all prisoners of some kind, but leaves you questioning what kind they all are.


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