Monday, 14 October 2013

Prisoners Review

Denis Villeneuve’s first English feature, Prisoners, has been some years in the making. Aaron Guzikowki’s script was first snapped up five years ago for $1,000,000 – not bad for a first time scriptwriter – with the likes of DiCaprio and Bale all attaching their names to the project. Yet before its release, Contraband, another Guzikowski script, hit cinemas first, with faint praise for its overcooked ‘one last job’ premise. Another film on child abduction, Prisoners doesn’t exactly tackle new ground either, but in Villeneuve’s hands it makes for compelling cinema backed up by an impeccable central cast.

As Philadelphian family man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) recites the Lord’s Prayer to his son, watching over him as he hunts his first doe in the wintry forests that surround their home, the view Keller holds of himself as a committed father and staunch Conservative quickly becomes clear. It’s Keller’s traditionalist approach to masculinity – the provider with a basement full of emergency supplies - that will soon come to entrap him when, later that Thanksgiving Day, his and family friend Franklin’s (Terrence Howard) daughters disappear after fooling around by a rusty RV. However, when Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) later confronts the RV’s driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano at his waif-like best), the investigation’s prime suspect is found to have the IQ of a 10 year old. The girls, meanwhile, are nowhere to be found.

Prisoners dabbles with Christian iconography throughout, yet faith in this film lies not in religion but in one’s own increasingly fevered convictions, as Keller’s unbreakable belief in Alex’s guilt comes to justify his own disturbing actions. Like this year’s other great study of masculinity, The Place Beyond the Pines, Prisoners paints a rather shameful picture of bloody-mindedness in suburban America that easily translates to rather more international affairs. Loki and Dover become so focused on their own rivalry that the actual clues laid in front of them become apparent far too late.

Many have argued that Guzikowski’s script, even after third act rewrites, quickly falls apart at the denouement, yet for those who are paying attention the mystery of Prisoners comes together all too neatly. Loki’s investigation seemingly throws up a number of red herrings that are all too important – as he himself states, with a little too much hubris, ‘it all matters’. The mystery of Anna and Joy’s disappearance is a satisfying one that, whilst never straying too far from conventional narratives, is well handled by Villeneuve. Roger Deakins, meanwhile, brings his usual A game to proceedings, with the forests of Philadelphia quickly becoming all too claustrophobic. In the few shots where beeches aren’t lining the background, the outlying fields are so strikingly barren it feels like the bad guys already won and everyone else is just playing catch up.

But of course, it’s the three central performances from Gyllenhaal, Jackman and Dano that really stick. Gyllenhaal’s vulnerable idiosyncrasy may be his go-to performance, but it’s one he always handles with such aplomb that his characters can’t help but feel real, and Loki makes for a memorable protagonist. Dano’s turn as Alex, meanwhile, is distressing in both its frailty and its utter creepiness, making Jackman’s descent into frenzy all the more uncomfortable. Prisoners is a haunting look at how easily we lose control, and whilst not as strong as Cianfrance’s similar foray, makes for an excellent companion piece. Already eagerly anticipating Villeneuve’s Enemy, which sees him again teaming up with Gyllenhaal.