Saturday, December 14, 2013

Movies: Prisoners ('Best of 2013' List)

The blog has been neglected for the better part of a year(!), so in an attempt to rectify that, I'm going to throw up a number of 'Best of 2013' capsule reviews in the coming days. I've seen hundreds of films this year, but not all of them -- especially since there are still two weeks left before 2014 arrives -- so expect some obvious omissions (I still haven't seen Gravity yet, for instance). Also, not all of the films I've seen this year have been 2013 releases. That said...

Prisoners begins on Thanksgiving Day in the U.S., where the Birch family (played in part by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) are getting together for holiday dinner with the Dover family (played in part by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello). During the festivities, each family has a young daughter go missing while the two of them are off playing together, each later thought to have been abducted while the remaining family members were otherwise preoccupied.

Paul Dano plays Alex Jones, a peculiar young man who is the right type at the wrong place and the wrong time when potential criminals are being sought out.

Child abduction (and murder, potentially) is a hard subject, especially for an entertainment. Here, the talented Canadian director Denis Villeneuve and his cast work with a high level of skill, consideration, and grace, such that the result doesn't feel exploitative. Take note, however, that the film is a thriller first and foremost -- my expectaions of what I was about to see prior to seeing it were that it might fall more squarely in the pocket of pure arthouse-meditation based on it's pedigree. That's not a criticism by the way, as I like all kinds of films on the spectrum between arthouse and popcorn, and Villaneuve's previous films that I've seen have been first rate. What's most compelling about Prisoners is that it effectively works to contain aspects of both kinds of films at once: an edge-of-your-seat "whodunit" coupled with broader implications and discussions of morality.

Villaneuve has said he is influenced in part by the works of David Fincher. There are echoes here of Fincher's true-crime-drama Zodiac (including the casting of Gyllenhaal in a very different role), which I make as a complimentary comparison. Like Fincher's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake, the skill of everyone involved sometimes shows that the underlying material (the script and some of the thriller-tropes it tries to roll into the mix) is not quite at the same level as the other ingredients, but it's a mild criticism of an otherwise excellent film.

In the past, I've often felt that Jackman has struck false notes in his performances, where he seems to be acting-with-a-capital-A (which may be a reflection of his song-and-dance-man theatre training), but here there's none of that. It's his best, most naturalistic performance to date.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, who has been assigned to the case of the missing girls. Gyllenhaal gives Loki a facial tick: heavy-lidded blinking which he seems to do with more of his face than is necessary. As described here it might seem cartoonish, but it works surprisingly well in context, and becomes a tell for when Loki is agitated or uncomfortable, and sometimes as an indication that he's very motivated to crack anyone who would try to be a tough-nut in preventing him from solving the case and finding the girls (whatever their condition). Loki takes his cases as personally as he does professionally at times, especially here (linked to an excellent heightened scene in a car parked at an abandoned lot across from a liquor store, between Gyllenhaal and Jackman).

I understand that the central theme of the film will be off-putting for some at first glance, but if you find yourself in the mood for an intelligent adult thriller, Prisoners is definitely worth your time.

Best moments, no spoilers:
  • Davis in her one scene with Dano.
  • The aforementioned parked-car scene between Gyllenhaal and Jackman. (A few excellent "parked car" scenes in general).
  • That ending. Perfect ending.

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