Friday, April 18, 2014
YOLO COUNTY NEWS
99 CENTS

‘Prisoners’: We cannot escape our nature

PRISONERS

When Alex (Paul Dano, on his back) is released for lack of evidence, Keller (Hugh Jackman) angrily confronts the younger man, convinced that he knows more than he’s telling about the disappearance of two little girls. Given time to think and plan, Keller will continue this “conversation” in a less public setting, and with a decidedly more dangerous intensity. Courtesy photo

By
From page A9 | September 20, 2013 | Leave Comment

“Prisoners”

4 stars

Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, Dylan Minnette, Len Cariou

Rating: R, for profanity, torture and disturbing violent content

Riveting performances highlight cleverly crafted crime drama

By Derrick Bang
Enterprise film critic

Revenge thrillers have become a violent — often tawdry — Hollywood staple.

Not this one.

“Prisoners” is a brooding, atmospheric slow burn: part character drama, part mystery, part thriller … and all-consuming. It has a distinctly European feel despite the small-town Americana setting: very much in the unsettling mode of French director George Sluizer’s 1988 chiller, “Spoorloos,” which he remade five years later with an American cast, as “The Vanishing.”

“Prisoners” comes from the capable hands of Québec-born director Denis Villeneuve, whose résumé includes tension-laden dramas such as “Maelstrom” and “Polytechnique,” and who garnered an Oscar nomination for 2010’s “Incendies.” Point being, Villeneuve has a superb sense of atmosphere and a knack for making the most innocent scene feel enshrouded by a blanket of malevolence.

He also has a gift for drawing persuasively authentic performances from his actors, and that’s certainly the case here. While the entire cast is compelling, stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are sensational. Both are gifted actors; both have been fine before. Under Villeneuve’s capable guidance, they’re even better.

The story opens on a cold, overcast Thanksgiving Day in a working-class Pennsylvania suburb: the kind of town where kids set up lemonade stands. The homes and yards are tidy but looking a bit distressed: fading paint and weather-beaten vehicles a testament to folks barely hanging on during the tough economy.

Out in the nearby woods, Keller Dover (Jackman) offers a solemn prayer to God before encouraging teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) to squeeze the trigger and claim his first deer. It’s a clean shot; as they drive the carcass home, Keller — a survivalist by nature — explains that they must be prepared at all times, must be their own strongest advocates, must expect to take charge when others inevitably fail.

Keller collects his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich); the family strolls up the street to celebrate the holiday with best friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). Ralph pairs off with teenage Eliza (Zoë Soul), who disapproves of the elder Dover’s fondness for hunting; Anna and 7-year-old Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) play together with the exuberance of small children.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera … hovers. We feel nervous: can’t explain why. Even as the adults relax after the huge meal, Franklin sharing his lamentable trumpet skills, the utter normality of this staunchly American ritual — playing out, we know, in similar homes across the entire country — is pregnant with building tension.

And yet it’s simply an ordinary celebratory tableau. All is right with the world.

Until, suddenly, it isn’t.

Keller notices first: The little girls haven’t been seen for awhile. Everybody searches — initially calm, increasingly frantic — to no avail. Anna and Joy are simply gone.

Police are summoned; the case falls to Loki (Gyllenhaal), a loner detective whom Keller instinctively mistrusts for his youth, his (supposed) inexperience and his failure to have a family of his own, thereby branding him as somebody who Simply Doesn’t Understand. Ralph remembers an odd, dilapidated RV that had seemed out of place when he and Eliza had taken the little girls for a walk earlier.

The vehicle is found; police arrest its driver, a quiet, withdrawn and deeply frightened twentysomething named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Much as Loki wants this to be The Guy, there’s nothing on which to build a case. The RV contains no physical evidence; more to the point, the developmentally disabled Alex has the mind and social awareness of a child.

And yet … he was driving the RV. By himself.

Keller seizes on this little detail, can’t let go of it; to him, this indicates proof. Then, when the police are forced to release this suspect for lack of evidence, Keller is present when Alex looks him straight in the eye and says something that nobody else hears: something possibly innocuous, but Keller thinks otherwise.

And, so, he takes matters into his own hands.

On this level, Aaron Guzikowski’s enormously taut and clever script is ripped from contemporary headlines and ceaseless discussions of post-9/11 morality. If “society” — in this case, the local police — seems ineffectual or unqualified, is individual action appropriate? How far should it go? Do the stakes justify any approach, no matter how cruel or heinous? And, God forbid, what if you’re wrong?

Villeneuve subsequently cross-cuts between three simultaneous storylines: Keller’s determined effort to wrest Truth from Alex, with the reluctant participation of Franklin; the agonizing, engulfing stasis that smothers the wives and elder children left back in their homes, as every minute stretches into an eternity of self-recrimination; and Loki’s dogged pursuit of stray threads that offer the tantalizing hope of a lead, but inevitably go nowhere.

Pay close attention, because details matter; Guzikowski has orchestrated a wickedly fiendish puzzle. I haven’t seen a thriller this carefully layered, this meticulously crafted — one that builds to a slick payoff that puts all the pieces together — since M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Sixth Sense,” back in 1999 (when that fellow still knew how to make a good movie).

Jackman unerringly navigates a tremendously difficult role, as Keller’s apparently facile personality — impatience, snap judgment, anger-management issues — yields to an unexpectedly complex and badly damaged soul. Keller sees himself as the ultimate father figure: the provider and protector, the White Knight. When he cannot fulfill that role, his notion of self disintegrates: Jackman’s very being — his commanding aura — seems to wither away, as if the bones supporting his frame are crumbling, turning every motion into a herculean effort.

It’s quite a portrait, and we can’t take our eyes off Jackman. We wince time and again, wondering how Keller can make this already frightful situation even worse.

Gyllenhaal has the quieter, less florid role; Loki is procedure personified, a methodical investigator who believes that slow and steady always wins the race. That said, his need to remain calm, to resist the same vengeful impulse that governs Keller, has taken its toll; Loki’s uncontrollably twitching eyes betray his own bottled-up rage, his fear of impotence. When that fury does erupt — quite memorably, in one unexpected moment — the result is shocking.

Dano, with plenty of misfit characters in his past, is perfectly cast as the helpless, overwhelmed Alex. He radiates the frightened vulnerability and fragility of an injured sparrow; Alex simply is no match for the raw ferocity of a man such as Keller, who — in Dano’s terrified expression — looms as a monster from the worst possible nightmare. Terrified, yet also uncomprehending; the Alex/Keller dynamic is like watching a deaf/mute being tortured by a sadist who doesn’t realize that his victim cannot speak.

Villeneuve and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach tighten the screws with ruthless efficiency; despite clocking in at a generous 153 minutes, the tension never flags. Indeed, the intensity simply mounts, much like the long-form TV thrillers that the British deliver so well.

“Prisoners” — great title, by the way — is quite a ride. See it quickly, before the many layers of Guzikowski’s deliciously twisty narrative are exposed by Internet spoilers and jerkwad TV personalities.

— Read more of Derrick Bang’s film criticism at http://derrickbang.blogspot.com. Comment on this review at www.davisenterprise.com

LEAVE A COMMENT

Discussion | No comments

The Davis Enterprise does not necessarily condone the comments here, nor does it review every post. Read our full policy

.

News

 
Chuck Rairdan joins school board race

By Jeff Hudson | From Page: A1, 2 Comments

Going green at church, school, everywhere

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Former caretaker convicted of murder, elder abuse

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A1, 4 Comments | Gallery

Old friend helps Brad and others find kidneys

By Dave Jones | From Page: A1 | Gallery

 
Ukraine insurgents reject call to quit buildings

By The Associated Press | From Page: A2, 4 Comments

 
For the record

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A2

UCD to host Global Health Day event

By Cory Golden | From Page: A2

 
‘Hitchhiking’ dog looking for new home

By Lauren Keene | From Page: A3 | Gallery

 
Need a new best friend?

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A3 | Gallery

 
Online K-12 school holds info night

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Volkssporting Club plans North Davis walks

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Schwenger lawn signs available

By Anne Ternus-Bellamy | From Page: A4

Volunteers needed for Grad Night

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Davis grad makes rain collection a business

By Jason McAlister | From Page: A4 | Gallery

A few spots left on history tour

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Chipotle fundraiser boosts Emerson tech upgrade

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

Event to provide nature scholarship

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A4

 
Students have new options on leasing front

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A5 | Gallery

Groups join for a day of service

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A7

 
NAMI backers walk in Sacramento

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: A8

 
Food for the hungry

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A10

.

Forum

Dad makes mom look bad

By Special to The Enterprise | From Page: B5

 
Early help is a great investment

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6

More tax money? Answer the question

By Rich Rifkin | From Page: A6, 4 Comments

 
UCD IS responsible for students

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 4 Comments

 
Tom Meyer cartoon

By Debbie Davis | From Page: A6

In search of great ideas

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

 
Please keep the nursery open

By Letters to the Editor | From Page: A6, 1 Comment

.

Sports

Sharks double up Kings in Game 1

By The Associated Press | From Page: B1

 
Aggies lose a slugfest in opener at Riverside

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

Fox coming to UCD; Riffle heads to Florida

By Bruce Gallaudet | From Page: B1

 
DHS’ Golston goes full-bore on the diamond

By Thomas Oide | From Page: B1 | Gallery

Devils show more life in loss to Mitty

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B1

 
DYSA roundup: Intensity has big week; 10U games dominate schedule

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B2 | Gallery

Sports briefs: Aggies set the academic bar high

By Enterprise staff | From Page: B8 | Gallery

 
Pro baseball roundup: Susac sends Sacramento to a rare loss

By The Associated Press | From Page: B8

.

Features

.

Arts

‘Transcendence’: A whole new level of tedium

By Derrick Bang | From Page: A11 | Gallery

 
‘The Bloom’ paves way for Whole Earth Festival

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

DHS tribute to Tony Fields slated for April 25-26

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

 
UCD, city team up for Music on the Green

By Enterprise staff | From Page: A11

.

Business

Ford turns its Focus to domestic market

By Ali Arsham | From Page: B3 | Gallery

 
.

Obituaries

.

Comics

Comics: Friday, April 18, 2014

By Creator | From Page: A9

 
.

Real Estate Review

Featured Listing

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER1

Professional Services Directory

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER2

Lyon Real Estate

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER3

Acacia at Huntington Square

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER4

Jamie Madison

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER4

Yolo FCU

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER4

Travis Credit Union

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER5

Kim Eichorn

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER6

Suzanne Kimmel

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER6

Lynne Wegner

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER7

Kim Merrel Lamb

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER7

Patricia Echevarria

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER8

Chris Snow

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER8

Andrew Dowling

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER9

Sheryl Patterson

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER9

Don Guthrie

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER9

Coldwell Banker

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER10

Coldwell Banker

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER11

Heather Barnes

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER12

Julie Partain & Dick Partain

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER12

Malek Baroody

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER13

Karen Waggoner

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER14

Willowbank Park

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER14

Team Traverso

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER15

Julie Leonard

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER15

Tim Harrison

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER15

Tracy Harris

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER16

Lori Prizmich

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER16

Joe Kaplan

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER17

Raul Zamora

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER17

Coldwell Banker

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER18

Open House Map

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER19

F1rst Street Real Estate

By Zack Snow | From Page: RER20