Prisoners Review

Posted: October 2, 2013 by Daniel Simpson (PG Cooper) in PG Cooper's Movie Reviews

prisoners-posterWritten by Daniel “PG Cooper” Simpson

One of my favourite things about movies is trailers. I love a good trailer, I love seeing them before a film in the theater, and in general I like just getting a taste for the film. But every so often a trailer comes along which doesn’t just give a taste, but practically the whole meal. The recent trailers for the Carrie remake are a good example of this, but those trailers don’t really offend me, mainly because that story is already pretty iconic and most know a decent amount about the story already. I was more pissed off by the trailers for Prisoners, since it was an original IP I knew little about before the trailer but knew more than enough after it. Despite my disappointment, I still had hopes that Prisoners would provide an interesting story and hopefully a few surprises.

The film opens with Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) taking his teenage son (Dylan Minnette) hunting. As the two drive home, Keller tells his boy that the most important advice he was ever given was to always be ready. The two return to their suburban neighborhood where Keller’s wife and young daughter (Maria Bello and Erin Gerasimovich) are waiting to meet family friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving dinner. Like the Dovers, the Birchs also have a daughter (Kyla Drew Simmons) and the two quickly go out and play. Sometime passes and the parents begin to wonder where their kids are. Things escalate quickly and soon Detective Loki (Jake Gylenhaal) is brought in to investigate. He quickly apprehends a suspect in Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but the situation is further complicated when Loki has to let Jones go due to lack of evidence.

First off, if you don’t know the twist I criticised the trailer for revealing and would like to go into the film without knowing then I recommend you stop reading now. Since it was in the trailer I’m deeming it fair game to discuss. The twist I’m alluding to is that after Alex is released, Keller kidnaps and tortures him believing him to know where the girls are. On the plus side, this twist occurs much earlier than I would have expected, but that also speaks to part of the problem. The reason I assumed that Alex being kidnapped was a big twist is because that just seems like the type of big turn a story would take in the third act, but isn’t enough to support an entire film. Sure enough, the storyline starts strong but quickly fizzles out. This is in large part because the script never really does much with it. Keller captures Alex and tortures him a few times, and while the film flirts with the moral question of whether what’s going on is right or wrong, it never really dives into the issue.

It doesn’t help that the film can’t seem to decide if it wants to focus on the torture subplot or the mystery story that Gylenhaal’s Detective Loki is embroiled in. Sometimes the switch between stories can be a little jarring. On the whole, I say the mystery plot does work much better than the torture plot. The mystery actually moves, takes some interesting turns, and comes to an overall satisfying conclusion. The torture plot on the other hand sits for a long time with nothing much actually happening. In general I think the editing for Prisoners could have been a lot tighter.

Thankfully there are a lot of well executed elements that  make this film pretty enjoyable. I haven’t seen the previous films of Canadian auteur Denis Villeneuve, but I certainly plan to now. Villeneuve shows a lot of control and while I do think he and the editor could have trimmed it down, several individual scenes are executed very well. He manages to give the film a very cold and unsettling vibe but he always keeps things grounded. The cinematography by Roger Deakins is, as expected, quite good and adds a lot to the tone. Deakins has a notorious history of well-shot films not winning him the Oscar and I doubt Prisoners will change that, but it is solid work and adds a lot to the film.

Villeneuve has also assembled a good cast. Hugh Jackman is given the meatiest role as Keller feels responsible for what happens and quickly becomes obsessed with finding them at any cost. He’s a man who’s personal and religious beliefs are challenged and Jackman dives into the heavy emotion head on. Viola Davis has some memorable moments here too, as does Paul Dano as the socially awkward Alex. Jake Gylenhaal is saddled with a slightly boring character (along with an awful name) but he’s a good actor who makes Loki more interesting than he should be. The rest of the characters are filled out nicely be talented performers like Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, and Melissa Leo.

All things considered, Prisoners is a film I have mixed feelings for, but they’re ultimately far more positive than negative. The cast is very good, the cinematography strong, and Denis Villeneuve has been introduced me as someone to watch. The script certainly has its problems. It lacks focus, occasionally drags, and lacks depth. That said, I wouldn’t call Aaron Guzikowska’s script bad so much as I would poorly thought out. Afterall there are a lot of good ideas to be found and Villeneuve did a pretty good job bringing those elements out.


  1. vinnieh says:

    Interesting review, I’ve heard good things about this movie.

  2. CMrok93 says:

    Good review Dan. The cast does very, very well with this material, even when it does get slightly conventional by the end.

  3. Hunter says:

    “Deakins has a notorious history of well-shot films not winning him the Oscar and I doubt Prisoners will change that, but it is solid work and adds a lot to the film.” lol :) Sad, but unfortunately true. The cinematography was pretty amazing. The drive to the hospital at the end there was really intense.

    I was initially going to try to disagree with you about the torture part dragging, but you’re probably right. Maybe that’s part of the idea of the film though? That torturing some guy outside the bounds of the law isn’t going to get you anywhere, while the detective work will move faster and be more effective? I didn’t really feel that it dragged, but now that you mention it I did find Gyllenhaal’s segments more interesting, just because it WASN’T torture. I’ll have to agree with you on that one.

  4. Many seem to like it–your review points out the inbalances. Interesting.

  5. moviebuff801 says:

    It seems we disagree on how the story was handled; this is one of the best movies I’ve seen so far this year.

  6. Mr Rumsey says:

    Nice review, I’m coming around to the idea of seeing this one!

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