Rob Harmon’s Picks 03/04/14

Rob_Harmon_image_for_picksThe final award may have been presented and the film industry done patting itself on the back – at least until next year – but let’s not close the book on 2013 just yet: one of the best movies of last year has generally escaped the acclaim that it deserves.

PRISONERS takes place in a rural, working class portion of Pennsylvania (though filmed in Georgia) and begins with an idyllic but creepy image: a man, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), whispers the Lord’s Prayer in voiceover while a doe wanders through the chilly woods. The camera pulls back until it reveals that the animal has stepped into the crosshairs of a young hunter, Keller’s teenaged son. Later, driving home with their quarry, Keller lectures his son on the idea of being prepared for disaster—any kind of disaster—and tells him that he is proud of him for felling the deer. This vaguely unsettling opening gives way to a small suburban neighborhood where two families, the Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and their neighbors and friends, the Birchs (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), have gathered together for a Thanksgiving repast. The families’ two young girls play together, at times watched by the teenage children and at other times not. Unbeknownst to the families, though, there is a stranger in the neighborhood that day and, when the girls disappear, it sets off a frantic search for their whereabouts.

Police Det. David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is the first on the scene of a suspicious-looking RV which was spotted in the neighborhood earlier that day but it only turns up a mentally disabled young man Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who provides no further leads. However, when the police later release Alex and he is picked up by his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), Keller attacks him and hears—or thinks that he hears—Alex whisper a cryptic message which may betray some guilt on his part. With time running out Keller must decide how far he will go to meet the needs of the coming disaster, and whether he would even go as far as torture to get his answers.

Prisoners is unique partly for its sense of creeping dread, a tone which is sustained over the course of two-and-a-half hours. The beautifully spare score is provided by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhansson while the meticulous, mesmerizing camera work comes courtesy of famed British cinematographer Roger Deakins (SID & NANCY, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION and innumerable Coen Bros. films) who proves himself capable of wringing every imaginable shade of grey from the color palette. The camera seems to glide through Prisoners. At times the film seems like one slow, continuously probing tracking shot, endlessly zooming in on something too large to comprehend, a sort of omnipotent viewpoint which still, somehow, comes up frustratingly short. The movie looks as though it were filmed in some land permanently overcast and raining When undiluted light appears it is almost startling. Had Bergman been somehow coaxed into making SILENCE OF THE LAMBS it might have looked a little like Prisoners.

The acting in Prisoners is superb but special mention should be made of Melissa Leo, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, and Hugh Jackman, who is all pent-up rage and action, a tightly-strung bow on the verge of—and sometimes actually—exploding. Much has been made of Matthew McConaughey’s recent transformation in DALLAS BUYERS CLUB but not nearly enough of Jake Gyllenhaal’s into the tattooed, blue collar, potbellied Det. Loki. Loki is a strangely quiet, hulking, and ponderous sort of a creature, one whose uncanny instincts and occasional insights keep him just a half-step from cracking the case, yet whose bumbling humanity also drags him back, a mere half-step out of trouble’s way.

Prisoners is written by a relative newcomer, Aaron Guzikowski, and directed by Quebec native Villeneuve, who was responsible for 2010’s exceptional INCENDIES. With his assured direction of Prisoners, Villeneuve instantly places himself at the forefront of directors working today. The film provides many questions and no easy or pat answers.

Prisoners is an ideally brooding thriller for our present day. It can be a grueling affair: its central plot involving young children in peril as well as its scenes depicting torture can be difficult for anyone to stomach. However, there are moments of serene beauty to be found here, as well, and a taut plot full of well-thought-out, twisty, hairpin turns. Prisoners manages to be both sensitive and tough, depicting an array of characters in extreme moral crises—indeed, no one in this world seems capable of escaping them—but still hits the viewer like a punch in the gut.