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FILM REVIEW: Prisoners

n.d.

David Ives - published on 09/20/13

Worth a visit. It's a long but wonderfully portrayed insight into the spiritual consequences of a persons actions.

There are probably a couple of things you need to know before going to see Denis Villeneuve's new film, Prisoners. One is that you should always check the running time of a movie beforehand. A few of the folks at the screening I attended didn't do so, and by the time the movie was nearing the 2 1/2 hour mark, you could hear stomachs beginning to rumble. Prisoners is a long film, so eat a sandwich before you go.

The second thing is that if you've got kids, make sure you know where they are before taking your seat. This is important because if you don't know your children's exact whereabouts when Prisoners begins, the storyline will likely cause panic to set in somewhere around the 20 minute mark and you'll feel compelled to leave the theater to go check on their safety, thereby missing part of the movie. Don't worry though, it'll still be going when you get back. Like I said, Prisoners is long, so you'll have time to catch up if you miss a scene or two in the middle.

Now there's only a couple of reasons I can think of, off the top of my head, for a movie to have a 2 1/2 hour runtime. The first is that the filmmakers spent way too much money making it and felt the need to overcompensate by putting as much up on the screen as possible. That's probably how something like The Lone Ranger – which really only needed somewhere around 90 minutes to tell its story – got turned into a 3 hour long endurance test. That doesn't really apply to an intimate movie like Prisoners though.

The second reason is that the people involved believe the movie has something important to say or some important questions to ask and they want to give you enough time to let those things sink in. As proof, just look at the Academy Award winners for best picture over the last ten years. Only two of them clock in (barely) under two hours and they both had good excuses. One (The Artist) was a silent movie and didn't have to waste any time letting the actors speak, and the other (Crash) was so condescendingly pretentious that the people who made it probably couldn't even stand to watch it for too long of a time, much less force an audience to do so. Prisoners is the type of movie that wants to ask important questions.

You can tell this right away as the first image we're presented is of Keller Dover (Academy Award nominee Hugh Jackman) instructing his teenage son Ralph how to take down a doe with one shot while Keller, in voice-over, recites the Our Father. The idea is to set up a dichotomy for the character, showing Keller to be both deeply spiritual and yet also comfortable with doling out violence, sort of a working man's Wolverine if you will. Of course, this particular attempt at narrative shorthand is only successful if you believe all hunters to be inherently bloodthirsty, so if you're not of that opinion then the opening is pretty much wasted on you. Don't fret, though, because Prisoners will give you plenty more opportunities to understand the conflict going on within Keller's soul before things are over and done.

At first glance, however, Keller comes across as just an ordinary hard working guy devoted to his wife Grace (Golden Globe nominee Maria Bello) and their two children. Keller is also a pretty good neighbor and co-worker, as we learn when the Dovers visit the home of Keller's employee Franklin Birch (Academy Award nominee Terrence Howard) and his wife Nancy (Academy Award nominee Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving dinner. The trouble only begins when the Dover's little girl wanders off with the Birch's youngest daughter while everyone else is preoccupied with after-meal conversations and lazing about. Once the families realize the girls aren't in or around the house, fear quickly takes hold as Ralph remembers seeing a mysterious RV parked in the neighborhood.

To their credit, it takes the local police, led by Detective Loki (Academy Award nominee Jake Gyllenhaal), only a few short hours to track the vehicle to a nearby gas station where, as soon as they close in on it, the driver immediately tries to escape. Once apprehended, the suspect turns out to be Alex Jones (BAFTA nominee Paul Dano), a teenage boy with obvious mental impairments who seems oblivious to the questions he's being asked. Unable to glean any information through their interrogations, and with no physical evidence to connect Alex to the girls, the police have little choice but to let the boy go.

And that's where Prisoners starts to get complicated, both in story and in theme. Convinced that he's heard Alex whisper an admission that he knows where the girls are being kept, Keller decides to take matters into his own hand. He kidnaps Alex and takes him to an abandoned building where, with the reluctant aid of Franklin, Keller intends to beat and torture the boy until he discloses the girls' location. Prisoners could easily sink into standard action-thriller mode at this point, with Keller tearing across the city in search of his daughter, letting nothing or no one stand in his way. But as the running time and the cast overflowing with prior award nominees suggests, Prisoners has other things on its mind than mindless entertainment.

Along with the mystery of what happened to the two little girls, which is well written and has enough twists and turns to keep you guessing for awhile, Prisoners is a character study in the baser nature of men and how that nature often conflicts with the institutions they join to help moderate them. Keller is a religious man who truly believes in the tenets of his faith, but he allows his desperation over the plight of his child to drive him to turn his back on those beliefs. Hugh Jackman really gives one of his best performances here. You can actually see by his expressions the damage being done to Keller's soul every time he abuses Alex. His turmoil at his own actions finally reaches the point where, when next he attempts to say the Our Father again, he can't even finish the line "forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us" because he knows he's betrayed that sentiment so thoroughly.

Jake Gyllenhaal's detective is also Oscar bait, with his often tight-lipped character defined almost entirely through body movements and mannerisms. (It may sound odd that Wolverine gives the emotional readings while the guy from Brokeback Mountain turns in the physical performance, but weird as it is, it works.) The tattoos dotting his body hint at a violent past, but Loki's membership in both the police force and the Freemasons (he sports a prominent Mason's insignia ring throughout the film) suggests his attempts to use the rules of those institutions to channel his tendencies towards something more constructive. And yet, as the movie progresses and the solution to the mystery eludes him, Loki becomes a mass of involuntary tics and blinking eyes as whatever rage he's been suppressing can barely be constrained any longer. Finally, he too gives in and steps outside the boundaries of his training, to disastrous results. 

The theme of spiritual failure even filters down to the minor characters the movie introduces. At one point during the investigation, Loki is ordered to check on all of the registered sex offenders in the area, a duty which naturally, this being a Hollywood production, brings him to the rectory of Father Patrick Dunn (Emmy nominated Len Cariou, you really have to dig deep into the cast list to find an adult who hasn't been nominated for some big award). I know, I know, in direct opposition to the documented 4 percent of priests who committed an act of sexual abuse on a minor between 1950 and 2002, it seems like Hollywood works under the ludicrous assumption that every other guy in a clerical collar is a pervert. Believe me, I'm as tired of that trope as the next Catholic. But this time around, the pedophile priest is not introduced as a gratuitous slam against the Church (I'm looking at you Mystic River), but rather to serve an important role in the narrative.

You see, because of his past failings, when combined with a little secret he's been keeping in his crawl space, Father Dunn understands something about the person or persons behind the girls' disappearance that Keller and Loki do not. Dunn knows that whoever took the girls is at war with God. He knows (slight spoiler here) that the kidnappers are well aware of the spiritual turmoil caused by their actions. It is, in fact, their driving motivation, to present people with a situation so horrible that they will turn their back on the teachings of their faith in order to try and get out of it.

Now, again, this being a Hollywood production, the filmmakers seem to want to have it both ways. While they acknowledge the spiritual damage that comes from deviating from your faith, they also seem to imply that faith and belief might be acceptable casualties if the situation calls for it. I have a feeling that the man who accepted his fate on the cross at Calvary might disagree with that. Still it's nice to have a movie that so blatantly addressees the spiritual consequences of a person's actions AND recognizes that sin is an offense against God. So by all means, go see Prisoners: it's well written, well acted, and delivers on its attempt to pose important questions. Just remember to eat a snack and visit the restroom before the lights go down, because it's a long time before they'll come back up again.

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