Review: “Prisoners” (2013)

PRISONERS (2013) movie poster

PRISONERS (2013) movie poster — image source: IndieJudge

Prisoners (2013) is an excellent dramatic crime thriller that verges at times on horror. While the horror elements appear to have been attenuated during editing, a subplot involving psychologically-disturbed, occult-influenced predators is still present. The focus, however, is on two strong, independent characters who are determined to solve a serious crime and rescue its victims — one out of professional pride, the other out of fatherly love.

The screenplay for Prisoners was written by Aaron Guzikowski. The film was directed by Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director who won Best Director at the 2nd Canadian Screen Awards for his mystery/thriller, Enemy, which was also made in 2013. Produced by Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, and Adam Kolbrenner, Prisoners premiered at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival. Originally rated NC-17 by the MPAA, it was edited down to R. Both critics and movie goers responded positively to the film. Prisoners was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Cinematography.

The Dover family in PRISONERS (2013)

The Dover family in PRISONERS (2013) — image source:

The story is based on every parent’s nightmare: a missing child. In a town in rural Pennsylvania, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) Dover visit the home of their friends and neighbors, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch, on Thanksgiving. Each couple has a teenager and a younger daughter. Keller and Grace’s six-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), and Franklin and Nancy’s daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), go to Anna’s house to play. On the way, they start to climb on a dilapidated RV that is parked in front of the house next door, but their teenage siblings (Joy’s sister Eliza [Zoë Soul] and Anna’s brother Ralph [Dylan Minnette]), who come outside to check on them, pull them off it. After Thanksgiving dinner, the younger daughters go back to Anna’s house to get her safety whistle, which she is supposed to carry at all times.

Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard)

Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) in PRISONERS (2013) — image source:

As evening begins to fall, the two families realize that the girls have not returned and start to search for them, becoming more panicked as it becomes apparent that they are nowhere to be found. Ominously, the RV is gone. The distraught parents call the police, who treat the missing persons report as a potential kidnapping after they are told about the suspicious RV. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to lead the investigation.  After a police search for the girls turns up nothing, the RV is spotted at a local service station. Loki apprehends the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), after he attempts to flee, but questioning reveals only that Alex does not appear to have the mental ability to pull off an abduction. Moreover, forensics does not provide any evidence that the girls were in the RV. Keller begs Loki to keep Alex in custody; Loki agrees, but his Captain (Wayne Duvall) disagrees and forces Loki to release him. This action enrages Keller, who secretly decides to take matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, Loki remains committed to solving the case and finding the girls, but begins to become suspicious about Keller’s activities. The resulting conflict between two men who should be allies leads down paths that neither man suspected that he would travel.

Gyllenhaal and Jackman

Gyllenhaal and Jackman go at it in PRISONERS (2013) — image source:

Director Villeneuve chooses to focus primarily on Jackman’s Keller and Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, highlighting each character’s struggle with inner demons and the rising conflict between the two. There are both positive and negative consequences to this decision. On the upside, this choice plays up the dramatic aspects of the movie. It provides Jackman with the opportunity to develop the character of Keller more fully than he did in some of his previous roles (such as the characters of Wolverine and Van Helsing). Jackman uses this occasion to demonstrate how the stress and pressure of trying to save a loved one can override one’s sense of right and wrong and lead him to treat others as less than human as a means to that end. This is especially salient for Keller, who has a deep Christian faith, but is also very independent and distrustful of authority (e.g., he is also a survivalist). He bears the burden of a failing independent business and is vulnerable due to a history of alcoholism.

Gyllenhaal and Dano

Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) interrogates Alex (Paul Dano) in PRISONERS (2013) — image source:

Gyllenhaal’s character shares many personality traits with Keller. Despite being a cop, Loki also has problems with authority, as symbolized by the tattoos that his working clothes do not quite hide (especially the neck tat). His contentious relationship with his Captain is introduced very early in the plot, showing that he is considered to be a loose cannon in the department. However, like Keller, he is also both an individualist and an idealist, leading him to pursue the rescue of the two kidnapped girls virtually on his own and at all costs. Like Keller, he will cross any boundary and obliterate any obstacle that stands between him and his goal. Unlike with Keller, however, the film does not invest as much time in explaining to the audience the motivations behind Loki’s decisions and behavior.

On the downside, the focus on Keller and Loki downplays the horror-based crime thriller aspects of the movie. The kidnapping of the two girls involves the type of psychologically-unbalanced, revenge-driven perpetrator that worked so well in films like The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and Red Dragon (2002). Involving a symbol (a maze) that the perpetrators of the crime use as a symbol of their occult beliefs, this story-line is virtually relegated to the status of a subplot as Keller’s obsession with Alex and Loki’s suspicions about Keller begin to take precedence over the investigation of the kidnapping. Perhaps the footage of this material was shot, but ended up on the cutting-room floor when the film was edited down from NC-17 to R.

Jackman, Gyllenhaal, & Villeneuve

Director Villeneuve (right) with Jackman and Gyllenhaal on the set of PRISONERS (2013) — image source:

As symbolized in the movie poster above, the horror aspects of the film, while central to the plot, are overshadowed by the drama between the two leading actors. This is not a bad thing, but it does determine what type of movie that Prisoners really is. Given the re-edit due to the NC-17 rating, it would be interesting to view a director’s cut of this film, if Villeneuve were ever to produce such an edition.