PRISONERS. Hugh Jackman, Jake Gylenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Len Cariou. Directed by Denis Villeneuve. 156 minues. Rated MA 15+ (Strong themes and violence).
Prisoners is one of the strongest dramas of 2013. It has been directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, who made a great impact with his Oscar-nominated film, Incendies. He has not failed in his follow-up film.
There are many prisoners in this film, some held in abduction and detention, some trapped in their own personalities.
On paper, the plot about the abduction of two little girls might seem fairly straightforward. The police investigate. The fathers become involved. The mothers share in the grief. The search goes on over many days and the audience is always unsure of the outcome.
The film opens with two hunters stalking a deer in a wintry November setting. The soundtrack has a recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. There will be themes of hunting during the film. There will be some Christian themes.
Two families celebrate Thanksgiving together, the Dovers and the Birches. Keller Dover is played by Hugh Jackman in one of his best roles and Maria Bello is his wife. The Birches are played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis. Before the meal the two little girls go for a walk and wamt to play on a camper van parked in the street. After the dinner, they disappear as does the camper van.
The film is very powerful showing the desperation of Dover. An intense man, a carpenter and builder, he is a reformed alcoholic and a devout Christian, listening to tapes in his car. Angered by the seeming lack of effort by the police, he takes the search into his own hands with brutal and devastating results. He persuades his friend Franklin Birch to join him to find out where the girls have been him.
In the meantime, it is Jake Gylenhaal as the local detective who has never lost a case using police methods to try to track down the lost girls. It is one of Jake Gylenhaal’s best performances also, a loner, serious, with several tattoos, and no back story. It is inevitable that the two men will clash.
There has been controversy about the torture sequences in the film, whether they are too brutal, or if they bring home to the audience what is truly happening in the interrogation. Many have seen this plot line as echoing Americans taking people captive, interning them, torturing them, the superior Americans, righteous, against those they perceive as enemies, right or wrong. And the possibility is always there that they are wrong.
Central to the film is the man accused of abducting the girls. An accident in his early life has meant that he has an IQ of the boy about 10 years old. Played by Paul Dano, a versatile actor who does not always take on sympathetic roles, the audience is puzzled about his role in the taking of the girls because there seems no real evidence against him. Which makes the interrogation more brutal.
Another suspect enters the picture and is pursued by the detective, interrogated, his house searched, but the connection is not what the audience expects. In fact, by the time the film has ended, we realise that there were many clues given as to what had happened, especially in the subplot of an alcoholic priest and a dead body in his basement and his story of a man wanting to make a confession about abductions. One of the difficulties in investigations is the credibility of the witnesses, and a presumption that they will be telling the truth. Here, vicious lies are told.
There is a strong supporting cast with Len Cariou as the priest and, especially the very versatile actress, Melissa Leo, who appears in a great many films, several in 2013, very different roles and characters. But it is the focus on Hugh Jackman’s strong character and the counterbalance of Jake Gylenhaal’s detective which makes this a very strong drama, even to the final moments, which incorporate yet another clue and create an uneasy sense of what is to follow.
A dark exploration of human nature, evil choices begetting evil consequences. Sombre but strong.
Fr Peter Malone MSC is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
October 17 2013.