Prisoners is a 2013 American thriller drama film directed by Denis Villeneuve with a script by Aaron Guzikowski. Prisoners stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard, and Melissa Leo. Prisoners follows the lengths at which one father will go following the abduction of his daughter and her best friend on Thanksgiving Day.
Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a father of two with deep personal and religious convictions. Keller runs a carpentry business with his best friend and neighbor, Franklin Birch. On Thanksgiving Day, while playing in the streets, Anna Dover and Joy Birch are approached by an R/V and suddenly abducted. Detective Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, is assigned the case. Suspicion is immediately cast on Alex Jones, played by Paul Dano, the owner of the R/V. Jones is a mentally and emotionally stunted young man with the IQ level of a 10-year-old. The interrogation of Jones yields no fruitful leads, infuriating the distraught Keller. Keller violently confronts Jones outside the police station. The horrified and confused Jones frantically whispers to Keller: “They didn’t cry until I left them.” Keller then proceeds to abduct Jones, now convinced of his involvement, and torture him at Keller’s deceased father’s dilapidated and abandoned home. The film follows Keller and Loki desperately searching for the truth through drastically different means.
Prisoners is a decidedly dark and violent film. Though not horrific, it is certainly disturbing. Before editing, the content of the film was so graphic and violent that the MPAA gave the original cut the rating of NC-17.Prisoners is by no means a slasher flick with mountains of gore; the violence serves a purpose separate from making the viewer uncomfortable. In fact, I think the whole reason this film is genuinely disturbing isn’t the violence itself, but who is doing it and who he is doing it to. Keller Dover is a man, a man who the audience relates to. He isn’t the best at what he does and he doesn’t do it with adamantium claws. He is an honest human being with a family and ideals, ideals which he does his best to cling to. For all intents and purposes, he is us. He has been driven to violence and near madness by desperation that would plague any sane man. I believe what Villeneuve and Guzikowski are answering the question that many films of this nature ask and fail to answer: “How far would you go?” Prisoners does its best to answer this question to the fullest, depicting such raw violence to the extent that surprises and disturbs the audience.
The scene depicted above does not do any justice to just how raw Prisoners gets. Aaron Guzikowski constructs such a narrative that requires such unflinching depiction of brutality and violence, or else risk compromising the film’s central theme: “Would you do the same thing?” Guzikowski’s script is tight and delves deep into the darkness that is the human condition when faced with a combination of both hope (in the form of Alex Jones and his knowledge of what happened to the two little girls) and desperation: You will do everything and anything in your power to get what you want, even if it haunts you. Guzikowski’s script is a disturbing one, indeed, both on the surface and thematically. It is as disturbing as it is entirely engrossing.
Guzikowski’s script, of course, would fall flat if it was not backed up by near flawless performances by Dano, Gyllenhaal, and especially Jackman. Hugh Jackman ditches James Logan for a much more grounded performance, though he undoubtedly uses some of the anger he consistantly channels for Wolverine when need be, painting the portrait of a desperate, relatable, yet unhinged and unstable character that will do whatever is necessary. It is his performance that steals the show in this category; Prisoners is worth a watch for the performances alone.
Prisoners should also be noted for its cinematography. Roger Deakins is known as the man behind the camera for films such as The Shawshank Redemption, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, No Country For Old Men, Fargo, A Beautiful Mind, O Brother, Where Art Thou? and countless other films. With Prisoners, Deakins continues to make it known why exactly he is considered the best cinematographer in the business. Prisoners is full of excellent and intriguing camera work that was nominated for an Academy Award in 2013.
Prisoners was the English-language debut of French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, coming to the attention of Hollywood after Incendies (French: Fires) was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars in 2010. With Prisoners, Villenueve shows that he has a knack and an outright propensity for intensity and grounded, realistic, disturbing, yet somehow captivating violence, as well as unflinching explorations of the darkness of humanity and society at large. This has served him very well; Villeneuve has certainly made a name for himself since, directing Enemy in 2013, and more recently directing the excellent and equally violent and disturbing drug cartel thriller Sicario this past year. With a perfect track record thus far, Villeneuve is quickly becoming my favorite director, with the quickly approaching science-fiction film Arrival and the as of yet untitled sequel to Blade Runner being my most anticipated upcoming films.