Saturday, September 21, 2013

"Prisoners" review

In "Prisoners," mazes are a common motif throughout. Each character has to go through their own personal, seemingly endless maze to find the answers they're looking for. And when they're not actively crawling their own way out of their maze, they find themselves trapped in confinement. There are the characters who are literally imprisoned: Annie and Joy, two young girls abducted, drugged, and held against their will. Alex (Paul Dano), believed to be the main suspect in their abduction case, winds up being held captive as well, by Annie's father, Keller (Hugh Jackman). Figuratively, Keller is in his own prison as well. Sure, he has a degree of free will, but as long as his daughter is missing, his mindset is stuck in a prison it cannot get out of. He cannot shake the idea that Alex doesn't know where the girls are. He's willing to do what it takes to find his daughter, even if it means playing the role of abductor himself.

For Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), he's not necessarily imprisoned, mentally or physically, but in a way he is through his work. Loki is utterly dedicated in helping to find Annie and Joy and his search for the two girls leads him to some very strange places. He's been tasked to solve this endless maze for which there seems to be no solution for. Everytime his case takes one step forward, he winds up taking two steps back.

Watching "Prisoners," you find yourself caught in an endless maze too. The 153-minute running time only helps to compound that idea. There have been many similar crime/thrillers made about child abduction, but few manage to pull it off as well as this film does. What the film lacks in the way of character, it more than makes up for in plot detail. "Prisoners" never fails to be compelling. While the detective's search for Annie and Joy may lead to countless dead ends, the film has a very steady, confident flow. Director Denis Villenueve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski never give a sense of "making things up as they go along." No. Everything here feels deliberate. Whether it's the details the filmmakers choose to give us, or the ones they withhold from us (like, the POV shot from inside the RV at the beginning of the film). The film is Hitchcockian in the way it knowingly keeps details from the audience, and it's that devilish sense of storytelling confidence that makes "Prisoners" such an enjoyable, albeit intense, watch.

To go any further in terms of talking about the plot would be to ruin the film for you. The film still works whether key plot details are spoiled or not, but man, it's really fun to let the film unfold for you. The less you know going into the film, the better. My main complaint with the film is that I feel things wrap up almost too neatly. It's a little too convenient that Detective Loki manages to get as far as he does in solving this case, and even with the film's slightly open-ended ending, you still feel as if there's not a stone unturned in this film.

Of course, in a way, that's an unfair criticism. But compare "Prisoners" to David Fincher's "Zodiac" and you'll find out why "Prisoners" is merely a very good thriller instead of a classic (which is what "Zodiac" is). The film is so stuck in "plot unspooling" mode that there are times where you wish you got more in the way of character. This is a two and a half hour movie, after all. At the end, we barely know who Detective Loki really is. But more than that, we spend so much time with Hugh Jackman's character as he beats the living shit out of Paul Dano, that we never really get to spend much time with the rest of his family or the family of the other daughter that's been abducted (played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis).

That said, Hugh Jackman gives a very strong and emotionally complex performance. Jake Gyllenhaal is solid as usual as the headstrong detective. Everyone else, especially Paul Dano and Melissa Leo, are great as well. "Prisoners" is one hell of a film to watch as you watch things unfold the first time. It's a film that keeps you guessing until the very end. The film's a rarity in that it's a two and a half hour long thriller/police procedural that almost relies solely on plot. A lesser film would've completely derailed itself after the one hour mark, but "Prisoners" is an intense, and at times, brutal film that always manages to get by despite its shortcomings.

Grade: B+

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