Friday, September 20, 2013

Prisoners: We cannot escape our nature

Prisoners (2013) • View trailer 
Four stars. Rating: R, for profanity, torture and disturbing violent content

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 9.20.13

Revenge thrillers have become a violent — often tawdry — Hollywood staple.

Not this one.

When Alex (Paul Dano, on his back) is released for lack of evidence, Keller (Hugh
Jackman) angrily confronts the younger man, convinced that he knows more than he's
telling about the disappearance of two little girls. Given time to think and plan, Keller
will continue this "conversation" in a less public setting, and with a decidedly more
dangerous intensity.
Prisoners is a brooding, atmospheric slow burn: part character drama, part mystery, part thriller ... and all-consuming. It has a distinctly European feel despite the small-town Americana setting: very much in the unsettling mode of French director George Sluizer’s 1988 chiller, Spoorloos, which he remade five years later with an American cast, as The Vanishing.

Prisoners comes from the capable hands of Québec-born director Denis Villeneuve, whose résumé includes tension-laden dramas such as Maelstrom and Polytechnique, and who garnered an Oscar nomination for 2010’s Incendies. Point being, Villeneuve has a superb sense of atmosphere and a knack for making the most innocent scene feel enshrouded by a blanket of malevolence.

He also has a gift for drawing persuasively authentic performances from his actors, and that’s certainly the case here. While the entire cast is compelling, stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are sensational. Both are gifted actors; both have been fine before. Under Villeneuve’s capable guidance, they’re even better.

The story opens on a cold, overcast Thanksgiving Day in a working-class Pennsylvania suburb: the kind of town where kids set up lemonade stands. The homes and yards are tidy but looking a bit distressed: fading paint and weather-beaten vehicles a testament to folks barely hanging on during the tough economy.

Out in the nearby woods, Keller Dover (Jackman) offers a solemn prayer to God before encouraging teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) to squeeze the trigger and claim his first deer. It’s a clean shot; as they drive the carcass home, Keller — a survivalist by nature — explains that they must be prepared at all times, must be their own strongest advocates, must expect to take charge when others inevitably fail.

Keller collects his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and their 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich); the family strolls up the street to celebrate the holiday with best friends Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis). Ralph pairs off with teenage Eliza (Zoë Soul), who disapproves of the elder Dover’s fondness for hunting; Anna and 7-year-old Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) play together with the exuberance of small children.

Cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera ... hovers. We feel nervous: can’t explain why. Even as the adults relax after the huge meal, Franklin sharing his lamentable trumpet skills, the utter normality of this staunchly American ritual — playing out, we know, in similar homes across the entire country — is pregnant with building tension.

And yet it’s simply an ordinary celebratory tableau. All is right with the world.

Until, suddenly, it isn’t.

Keller notices first: The little girls haven’t been seen for awhile. Everybody searches — initially calm, increasingly frantic — to no avail. Anna and Joy are simply gone.

Police are summoned; the case falls to Loki (Gyllenhaal), a loner detective whom Keller instinctively mistrusts for his youth, his (supposed) inexperience and his failure to have a family of his own, thereby branding him as somebody who Simply Doesn’t Understand. Ralph remembers an odd, dilapidated RV that had seemed out of place when he and Eliza had taken the little girls for a walk earlier.

The vehicle is found; police arrest its driver, a quiet, withdrawn and deeply frightened twentysomething named Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Much as Loki wants this to be The Guy, there’s nothing on which to build a case. The RV contains no physical evidence; more to the point, the developmentally disabled Alex has the mind and social awareness of a child.

And yet ... he was driving the RV. By himself.

Keller seizes on this little detail, can’t let go of it; to him, this indicates proof. Then, when the police are forced to release this suspect for lack of evidence, Keller is present when Alex looks him straight in the eye and says something that nobody else hears: something possibly innocuous, but Keller thinks otherwise.

And, so, he takes matters into his own hands.

On this level, Aaron Guzikowski’s enormously taut and clever script is ripped from contemporary headlines and ceaseless discussions of post-9/11 morality. If “society” — in this case, the local police — seems ineffectual or unqualified, is individual action appropriate? How far should it go? Do the stakes justify any approach, no matter how cruel or heinous? And, God forbid, what if you’re wrong?

Villeneuve subsequently cross-cuts between three simultaneous storylines: Keller’s determined effort to wrest Truth from Alex, with the reluctant participation of Franklin; the agonizing, engulfing stasis that smothers the wives and elder children left back in their homes, as every minute stretches into an eternity of self-recrimination; and Loki’s dogged pursuit of stray threads that offer the tantalizing hope of a lead, but inevitably go nowhere.

Still, something’s definitely not right; the vibes are off. Keller has badly misjudged Loki; truth be told, this young detective will move heaven and earth in order to solve this case. Nothing else matters, particularly the dubious glances coming from colleagues and his ineffectual oaf of a precinct captain (Wayne Duvall, everybody’s nightmare bureaucrat come to life).

Pay close attention, because details matter; Guzikowski has orchestrated a wickedly fiendish puzzle. I haven’t seen a thriller this carefully layered, this meticulously crafted — one that builds to a slick payoff that puts all the pieces together — since M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, back in 1999 (when that fellow still knew how to make a good movie).

Remember how knocked out you were, during that film’s climax? How ingenious you thought it was, at the moment of revelation? Guzikowski delivers the same sort of emotional wallop here.

Jackman unerringly navigates a tremendously difficult role, as Keller’s apparently facile personality — impatience, snap judgment, anger-management issues — yields to an unexpectedly complex and badly damaged soul. Keller sees himself as the ultimate father figure: the provider and protector, the White Knight. When he cannot fulfill that role, his notion of self disintegrates: Jackman’s very being — his commanding aura — seems to wither away, as if the bones supporting his frame are crumbling, turning every motion into a herculean effort.

But the fury never vanishes; if anything, that particular fire sucks an increasingly proportion of Keller’s life force, leaving him less able to think, feel or question the wisdom of his actions. On top of which, Keller never loses his perceptive edge: He may be stubborn and rash, but he’s not stupid.

It’s quite a portrait, and we can’t take our eyes off Jackman. We wince time and again, wondering how Keller can make this already frightful situation even worse.

Gyllenhaal has the quieter, less florid role; Loki is procedure personified, a methodical investigator who believes that slow and steady always wins the race. That said, his need to remain calm, to resist the same vengeful impulse that governs Keller, has taken its toll; Loki’s uncontrollably twitching eyes betray his own bottled-up rage, his fear of impotence. When that fury does erupt — quite memorably, in one unexpected moment — the result is shocking.

Otherwise, Loki is deceptively restrained, Gyllenhaal’s misleading smile a truly dangerous thing. I love Loki’s interviews with persons of interest, either in the station house or out in the world; despite his scruffy, sleepless bearing, Gyllenhaal is almost charming. Until he isn’t.

Dano, with plenty of misfit characters in his past, is perfectly cast as the helpless, overwhelmed Alex. He radiates the frightened vulnerability and fragility of an injured sparrow; Alex simply is no match for the raw ferocity of a man such as Keller, who — in Dano’s terrified expression — looms as a monster from the worst possible nightmare. Terrified, yet also uncomprehending; the Alex/Keller dynamic is like watching a deaf/mute being tortured by a sadist who doesn’t realize that his victim cannot speak.

Or is it all a sham, and is Dano playing us, the way Edward Norton did so memorably, back in 1996’s Primal Fear? Keller certainly thinks as much; if we share that sentiment, do we become complicit in what comes next?

Howard is achingly raw as the conflicted Franklin, who wants no part of Keller’s “plan” but, at the same time, places far too much value on how he measures up in his best friend’s eyes. No matter what Franklin does, as a result, he’ll betray either himself or Keller; the misery of this Hobson’s Choice radiates from Howard’s agonized gaze.

Bello has the most tragic role, because Grace simply shuts down as the catastrophe continues through and beyond the second, third, fourth day. She has bought into her husband’s role as family protector, and cannot cope with his inability to bring their little girl home. Grace’s life force simply drains away.

Davis, alternatively, moves Nancy Birch in unexpected directions, suggesting that even the most civilized individual can be pushed too far. Thanks to the intensity of Davis’ performance, we’re not surprised by any of this.

Villeneuve and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach tighten the screws with ruthless efficiency; despite clocking in at a generous 153 minutes, the tension never flags. Indeed, the intensity simply mounts, much like the long-form TV thrillers that the British deliver so well.

Prisoners — great title, by the way — is quite a ride. See it quickly, before the many layers of Guzikowski’s deliciously twisty narrative are exposed by Internet spoilers and jerkwad TV personalities.

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