Blending a Hitchcock atmosphere over it’s Agatha Christie whodunit structure, Prisoners will draw you in, creep you out, and keep you transfixed until the last riveting moments.
Prisoners has been out a few weeks now, but still grossing in the top 10, which is a good thing if you want an October scare-fest. It might be better than any traditional horror film out this fall. The plot is simple: a father searches for his abducted child, independent of police efforts. What makes the story so compelling is the style. Prisoners starts slow. In a way, this is probably deliberate – the film’s style mimicking the lives of its upper middle class characters. Before long, an abduction occurs, and our main characters’ psyches start to fray.
Norse mythology works it’s way into another film’s symbolic nomenclature with Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who steps in to set things right. This character is enigmatic: his name and copious body tattoos contradict an outward straight-laced calm. In his first meeting with the distraught parents, Loki repeats phrases like, “I hear your concerns,” and, “let me do my job,” with such a flat affect and lack of empathy or consolation it serves only to worsen the parents worry. Gyllenhaal’s delivery immediately feels like some discarded rough-draft Mamet dialogue, or a telegraphed stage performance showing how constrained the police (the establishment) can be. At first, this strange manner of interaction threatens to torpedo the movie, feeling like it might become an overwrought art-house passion project lending a deaf ear to viewers’ emotional triggers.
Things turn out quite differently, thankfully, as French Director, Denis Villeneuve, seems to have had a plan. Hugh Jackman’s ‘Keller’ is losing the plot, worse than the other characters who are all distraught over not knowing what happened, and fearing ever the worse as each hour passes. Keller’s wife retreats quickly to the safety of her bedroom and the numbing effect of various prescription drugs. Meanwhile, as the trailer suggests, Keller captures a suspect and, as part of his psychological disintegration, attempts progressively more grotesque tortures to
extract a confession to his daughter’s whereabouts.
Jackman’s emotions take over the screen while Gyllenhaal’s stoicism acts as an anchor, grounding the audience in reality and framing how far down the rabbit-hole Keller has fallen.
The other relatives and neighbors also step in to try and talk Keller down, literally acting as the voice of reason. The psychological dissonance between Loki and Keller stokes the engine driving this film and its Hitchcockian atmosphere – we watch as a character loses his grasp on reality, one tiny step at a time, with no one able to stop it.
There’s a Christie mystery structure underpinning the action. Essentially the plot is a simple whodunit, and true to that style, the answer is dropped in our lap close to the beginning of the film. Once all the characters have been introduced, you also have the evidence of who’s responsible for the abduction, if you want to stop and think about it. The law of the economy of characters applies here, and in a way I wont reveal, it’s the key to solving the riddle. There are several clues, each of which hints at the solution, via different paths, and if you realize how they fit together after the fact, the “ah-ha!” moment is sublime. We’re also treated to several plot twists and misdirections along the way…or, are we?
I was going to pass on this film, but was talked into it by a friend who’s interest was piqued by the trailer. As it turns out, Prisoners is an excellent example one of my favorite types of movies, with several standout performances. If you’re inclined towards films like Psycho, Vertigo, of the very similar The Lovely Bones (2009) with Saoirse Ronan and Stanley Tucci, then Prisoners is not to be missed.
Prisoners is copyright 2013 by Warner Bros.