Saturday, 12 October 2013

Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Opting for mood over narrative thrills, this compelling if not routine story of missing persons manages to support its sizeable length with assured, measured direction, and a fine ensemble cast on notable form.

Even as we're acquainted with the Dover and Birch families as they celebrate Thanksgiving, the cardinal note that carries through the entire piece is one of impending doom, an ominous tone set by Roger Deakins' oppressive cinematography that creates a stronghold with its withered winter pallet. A mysterious RV parked across the street marks the first means of investigation once the youngest child of each family goes missing. What follows is a moral decent into hell as the fallout of these missing daughters pushes Keller Dover, in particular, to extreme lengths to retrieve information regarding their whereabouts. 

This is a performance in which Hugh Jackman has rarely been better. Keller is an interesting character, a loving yet stern man cut from old cloth; he's the kind of man you might find in Cormac McCarthy's writing, world weary with an approach to life measured only in his understanding of mortality. He teaches his son the way his own father taught him, to be prepared for everything, to "pray for the best and prepare for the worst". His basement is full of materials to deal with all imagined disasters, neatly aligned and organised these do nothing to help him cope with the affliction befallen upon his family.

When the investigation is forced to release a prime suspect, the man-child Alex Jones (Paul Dano), Keller takes matters in to his own hands as his conviction is unshakable in the suspect's guilt. Poor Dano spends much of the film mute, whimpering, or encased in darkness through Keller's systematic tortures. Tortures carried out in the derelict ruins of Keller's father's handed down house, a setting far removed from the pristine organisation of his basement promising protection from all life can throw. Here is a dank and shadowy setting where a man's soul is put into question and arguably destroyed before our eyes. The film's obvious philosophy is Freidrich Nietzsche's much examined idea of the abyss staring back at us as we look in, that we become the monsters we're fighting against. Film's such as I Saw The Devil, I felt, didn't bring much new to the table or at least deliver a touching account of such, and offered only grim violence. Prisoners manages to avoid the hackneyed account and come through with a resonant and affecting drama; Keller trying to recount the Lord's Prayer while breaking from torturing Jones is a delicately conceived moment in an otherwise powerhouse performance.

Alongside Keller's vigilante investigation is the routine approach from Detective Loki played by Jake Gyllenhaal. While Keller is encased within his emotions and can't see out, Loki's jaded modus operandi sees him on the straight path but with a too objective and complacent eye sees him missing details fuelling the enraged father. It's this balance of emotional intensity from the grieving and the stifled nature of the police work that drives the film forward. Prisoners asks how far can a detective, professional or not, push themselves for the truth? This was the same question asked by David Fincher's masterpiece Zodiac which also starred Gyllenhaal. Though Prisoners takes a post-9/11 stance as the family unit is destroyed despite all manner of guarding, and the obtaining of information by horrific means. This is a drama that carries over a week and not decades, without historical remove and with great emotional immediacy. 

With such an impressive ensemble cast not everyone gets to shine quite like Jackman and Gyllenhaal but each is with great purpose. The humanity in the eyes of Terrence Howard, the shakeable morals of the scene stealing Viola Davis, the raw grievance of Maria Bello. So many fine performers that gladly add up to the sum of their parts. However, it's the unrecognisable Melissa Leo with shades of Rosemary West as Alex Jone's aunt that truly impresses and the less said about her the better, just see the film.

The heavily dense atmosphere of Prisoners may be too much for some but its this consistency that makes its greatest strength; to carry through what it starts, and to dedicate to the seeds planted in the beginning. Letting the film rest uneasily in the mind and under the skin when its over. Even as the narrative begins to heat up in the final act, it remains a piece of overarching ideas rather than a 'thriller', 

It's no wonder Prisoners managed to attract such a fine cast as it's a film seldom produced in Hollywood anymore. Here is a thriller that we'd expect to see from S. Korea, from Joon-ho Bong or Chan-wook Park perhaps; a film of moral complexity, technical astuteness, and fearless execution. Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who made the equally harrowing Incendies, hasn't lost any of his bite from turning to US fare and in keeping this lays open an exciting prospect to where commercial American thrillers can go from here.

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