Massachusetts Daily Collegian

‘Prisoners’ is an arresting experience from start to finish

By Cory J. Willey

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courtesy of Warner Bros.

Imagine the person you love most in the world. Now imagine they’ve disappeared without a trace. They’re out of your reach and you’re seemingly powerless to bring them back. The police have a suspect but they don’t have the evidence to hold them for long and they’re going to walk. So what do you do? Do you sit at home and wait for that dreadful call from the police, or do you take matters into your own hands?

This question is the base upon which “Prisoners” is built. Director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski create a harsh, cold world and fill it with relatable characters, giving this thriller an emotional weight that is hard to find in others in the genre. Paired with a mystery that at first seems simple, but quickly becomes a tangled mess of dead-ends and riddles, and “Prisoners” makes for a compelling cinematic experience.

The film starts in familiar territory for a crime-drama. A kidnapping occurs that may be linked to others that suggest a similar killer MO and the police proceed to investigate. What sets “Prisoners” apart is its changing perspectives and the differing experiences it brings with it. The story periodically switches back and forth between the point-of-view of Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki and Hugh Jackman’s Keller Dover. Dover’s daughter and her friend have gone missing, and when evidence turns up that points to a kidnapping, he transforms from a protective father into a savage and desperate man who will stop at nothing to bring back his daughter.

Jackman is all-in here. While we’ve certainly seen him play angry before in his portrayal of The Wolverine, it’s never been backed up with such emotion and pain. Whether he’s shouting at the people who get in his way or mercilessly beating a suspect, it always feels like it’s coming from a place of genuine concern and fear.

Gyllenhaal’s Loki is an excellent parallel to Dover, as he too progressively becomes more and more frustrated with the increasingly complicated case. While Dover is able to operate on his own terms, Loki must remain under the constraint of the law and his superiors. Gyllenhaal balances the character’s calm demeanor and rage-filled actions expertly, giving him an aura akin to a chained animal, threatening to break free at any moment.

While Villeneuve and Guzikowski have created two strong protagonists in Dover and Loki, they seem to mishandle many of the secondary characters. In particular, Dover’s wife and son feel somewhat one-dimensional for a film that runs a little over two and a half hours. His wife simply mopes around in a drugged-up state for the majority of the film and his son is reduced to the role of her watchdog per Dover’s orders. This doesn’t detract in any significant way from the film, as Dover and Loki’s characters are so well fleshed-out. However, it would have been interesting to see more involvement from those so closely connected to the case.

Although the film regularly jumps from character to character, the tone of the film remains constant. From the moment the girls are taken to the final scene, there is a consistent feeling of foreboding and despair that never ceases to ramp up. The more time that passes after the kidnapping, the more desperate the search becomes and the more hopeless it all seems.

Villeneuve heightens this depressing tone with the backdrop of suburban Pennsylvania in late November. The increasingly violent and desperate scenes occur beneath grey snow and rain filled skies, the macabre pale-yellow of streetlights and the green-grey tinge of fluorescent lights. Villeneuve and Guzikowski don’t intend to let any happiness permeate this film’s gaunt personality, creating the perfect conditions for this dark and violent crime drama to truly resonate with its audience.

Mixed in with these morose feelings are scenes which depict truly gruesome violence. Unlike many modern films, however, it never feels gratuitous. Villeneuve depicts these moments in a way that doesn’t glorify their content, but rather causes the audience to dread their inevitability. This, coupled with the grave nature of the plot, gives “Prisoners” a sense of humanity that will leave you feeling drained by the time the credits roll.

Villeneuve and Guzikowski deliver an emotionally visceral experience by empathetically portraying violence against a bleak urban backdrop. Jackman and Gyllenhaal strengthen the heightened sense of realism with terrifically delivered performances. In combination, “Prisoners” is an excellent crime drama that will resonate with you long after you leave the theater.

Cory Willey can be reached at [email protected]

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