By Jake Howell jake.howell@utoronto.ca

The Torontonian Reviews PRISONERS

PRISONERS

Rarely does a director have two films at one festival, and a year or two from now, it might be that 2013 was Denis Villeneuve’s start to directing celebrity. Here in Toronto with not one but two films starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners and Enemy have debuted with much buzz), the French-Canadian director is fast on his way to being a known quantity in the United States.

Prisoners resembles the likes of your above-average beach read (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and the mystery unfolds in a similar way. The universally understood hook—the sudden disappearance of two small girls—takes hold almost immediately, capturing our attention with stomach-churning horror. The run-time teeters at two and a half hours, so there are red herrings, deductions, and interrogations that emerge before the grand reveal of where these girls are and what has happened to them. But it’s hard to look away or quickly hop to the washroom, as every scene holds a piece of the puzzle.

An unspoiled viewing of the film is so completely engrossing that every little clue or tidbit rattles and teases us. But the best mystery films are often those that withstand repeated viewings, for we watch these movies again and again to revisit how expertly handled each revelation is and how the characters react to them. Prisoners is this kind of mystery movie, though some may find its meaty length to be tolerable only once. Perhaps, but the title of the film is just as thematic as it is literal, and there is much to analyze here.

Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play the fathers of the missing girls, while Maria Bello and Viola Davis are their respective wives. “How far would you go?” asks the film’s tagline, which speaks to the desperation of distraught Keller Dover (Jackman). When Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) struggles to find answers in that critical first week of the kidnapping, Keller takes matters into his own hands, using unethical approaches to gain new information. A prime suspect (Paul Dano) becomes the focus of Keller’s attention, and what happens next is a morality test for everyone involved (the audience included). Jackman and Gyllenhaal make some excellent dramatic turns here, and the cast in general feels pitch-perfect. Similarly, while Dano’s mentally challenged character says very little, his facial expressions do not.

Writer Aaron Guzikowski has also woven some Christian overtones into the script, which may both divide and intrigue audiences. The film opens on a wintry forest scene: a deer stands majestically in the woods, and the camera pulls back slowly before revealing the end of a rifle. The Lord’s Prayer is narrated by Jackman’s character before the deer falls, providing venison for Thanksgiving dinner. The film has many moments like these featuring overt Christian themes, though I found they only added to the three-dimensionality of the morals in flux. It rounds out the film nicely, adding an extra layer of character development to the players in this story of small-town America.

There are so many directors who could take this script and do a decently crafted job of it, but hopefully some readers remember 2010’s impeccable Incendies, Canada’s foreign-language entry for the 2011 Academy Awards. That film was exemplary in proving Villeneuve’s restraint and mastery of pace, but its box office numbers make it clear Villeneuve has yet to reach the amount of eyeballs his work deserves. Prisoners has the strength and profile to significantly boost Villeneuve’s international visibility, because the director has shown he is just as capable with a studio budget as he is with an independent one. He simply doesn’t let the film’s sprawl get away from him, and the final product is exquisitely cohesive.

When it is released, Prisoners will be popular because of its narrative accessibility, its unpretentious approach to sensitive and artistic filmmaking, and its A-list cast that fires on all cylinders. The film is great and totally worthy of a major splash, and if you enjoy Prisoners in a big way, I implore you to go back to Incendies for more. Villeneuve is breaking through, and this realized potential is great for all movie fans—not just those interested in Canadian film.

PRISONERS

One Response to “The Torontonian Reviews PRISONERS”

  1. Shirley Rowden says:

    This film was anything but exquisitely cohesive. Bob Taylor who drew the maze and sneaked in both houses and stole the girls clothes and smeared them with pig’s blood and put them in crates with snakes and then shot himself when he was being questioned had nothing to do with the plot except confusion. Why did he buy girls clothes at the store and steal the real clothes? It was never explained how he connected to any part of the story except to confuse. Was he kidnapped and got away and that’s how he knew about the necklace??? I sure didn’t see that.

    Why did the first girl found point at Dover and say he put tape on her mouth which somehow told him who the killer was so he ran out of the hospital room. Dover didn’t kidnap her and didn’t put tape on her mouth so why was that even in the script?

    Alex didn’t seem to have the mentality of a 10-year old. He was just mean when he stared Dover down when he hung the dog and then sang the song the girls made up to taunt Dover. He might have been mistreated by that crazy woman but he knew she had the girls so he was culpable.

    We didn’t need all that stuff thrown in and it had nothing to do with the plot. If it was cohesive to the plot, please explain it to all of us who don’t get it.

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What’s up with your people mover shot, where it seems like people are kind of floating along?
Oh, my signature shot? That’s just a new way for people to move! It’s really become my Alfred Hitchcock cameo. I did not invent that shot, but Ernest and I did it on the set of Mo Better Blues, when Shorty had to walk [through the park], and I thought, “Let’s try it.” But after that, we tried to have a reason for it. For example, that wonderful sequence in Malcolm X where you hear the great song, “A Change Is Gonna Come.” The final scene is like that, Malcolm floating along to his destiny. In 25th Hour, after Philip Seymour Hoffman has kissed Anna Paquin, we did a shot like that, and it shows his state of mind. In Inside Man, after Denzel thinks he’s witnessed the murder of a hostage, we did the floating shot there.

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“I never accepted the term contrarian. I think that’s offensive, frankly. And my response to that is: if I’m a contrarian, what are other reviewers? What I strive to do is be a good critic, not somebody who simply accepts the product put in front of me. I guess it scares people to think that they don’t have any originality; that they don’t have the capacity to think for themselves.

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