Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Prisoners / ***½ (R)

Keller Dover: Hugh Jackman
Detective Loki: Jake Gyllenhaal
Grace Dover: Maria Bello
Nancy Birch: Viola Davis
Franklin Birch: Terrence Howard
Alex Jones: Paul Dano
Holly Jones: Melissa Leo

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Running time: 153 min. Rated R (for disturbing violence content including torture, and language throughout).

School shootings. Child abduction. The gun debate. Religious zealotry. And People just trying to live their lives by doing what’s right. “Prisoners” is a new thriller made for the times in which we live. It doesn’t take sides on any of these issues, but it incorporates them all and more into a parent’s worst nightmare.

Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, a God fearing man who lives life by the mantra “Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.” After watching his son make his first kill on a hunting trip in the opening scene, Keller tells the boy that when it comes down to the worst-case scenario, the only person one can rely on is himself. He’s proud of his boy for making a good clean kill, and he lets him know it. He’s a good man and a good father.

After the hunting trip Keller, his wife, son and young daughter head to another couple’s house for Thanksgiving dinner. These are the Birches. They have two daughters, one about the same age as the Dovers’ son and another the same age as their daughter. The day goes about the way a lackadaisical overcast holiday afternoon will, with out the imposition of extended family, among the comfort of good friends. Then, the two younger girls disappear.  Life has forever changed for these two families.

Under the patient direction of Denis Villeneuve, who helmed the remarkable Canadian picture “Incendies”, “Prisoners” unfolds at a pace that allows the audience to fully consider every development—an aspect he uses to allow us to question our own perceptions of this story where the characters must also do so. He focuses the debate of perception on the police investigation by Detective Loki. Jake Gyllenhaal once again proves his ability convey his character’s inner conflicted perceptions of all that he has to work with on his case, which at first is very little indeed.

The teen children provide the sole lead by pointing out an old RV that was parked in the neighborhood before the abduction. Loki tracks down the vehicle fairly quickly and then his case gets very muddy. The owner is most certainly a disturbed man—played by the consistently disturbing Paul Dano—but Loki doesn’t feel a man of his limited intellect could pull off such a bold crime without leaving any evidence behind. But is this man as little as he appears?

I’ll give you a hint. Very little in this movie is what it at first appears. The screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski seems to have its own mantra. If the answers seem to be simple or easy, think again. The movie makes you think about just how difficult a police investigator’s job is. Everybody has their own perceptions of what is happening, everybody reacts differently to a crisis, and every problem usually seems to have simple solution. What a detective of this type must be able to do is sift through all of these perceptions and possibilities and find the reality, which everyone perceives differently. Do you see their problem?

Those problems are intensified when one of the victims decides to take matters into his own hands. Keller disagrees with Loki’s assessment of the disturbed man after an encounter in the precinct parking lot suggests to him that the man knows more than he’s letting on.

I will not reveal any more plot details. What I’ve covered here is pretty much what is covered in the trailers for the film, and—unlike most trailers—that covers only about the first third of the film. The rest of the movie is filled with twists and false leads and wrong turns. Every one these forces the audience to question their perception of what they’ve seen, while most of the characters staunchly cling to their own theories. Keller’s choices force him to question his own faith, and other victims of similar crimes are quick to point out their own losses of faith.

The movie is not a criticism of religion. Like the similar thriller “Seven”, it doesn’t fall on one side or the other, but it uses religious faith as an aspect of the character’s lives to explore their own personal moralities. It goes beyond religion to explore even the personal philosophies of Keller and Loki. Keller’s faith in his own resolve leads to decisions that will irrevocably and negatively affect his life and the lives of those he holds dear.

Loki’s outlook is based solely on his duty as an investigator and law enforcer. He doesn’t get wrapped up in the emotions of the people involved in his case, but he does empathize. The fact that most of what he encounters is an obstacle to his ultimate goal makes his task seem insurmountable. Do the rules and protocol Loki must follow hamper the amount of time his investigation takes? Does he concentrate on the wrong aspects? Is Keller’s collapse of moral fortitude an acceptable cost for his daughter’s life? Could Loki even solve the case without Keller’s sacrifice? Or are Keller’s perceptions of reality even accurate?

At two hours thirty minutes in running time, it’s easy to question whether the filmmakers could’ve tightened “Prisoners” up a bit. Despite the deliberate pacing, I never once checked my watch to see how much time was left. The extra time is devoted to exploring how every family member involved deals with the crisis in their own way. With the amazing cast, this is a welcome development. The slow pace also has the effect of placing these events in the realm of the real world we all experience. It is an environment that has recently become enveloped in a culture of fear. That fear makes our dependence on things like family and faith that much more precious to us, and yet the threats against those aspects of life are what drives that fear. It is a frightening world. Understanding it is our best defense.

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