- Drama, Thriller
- Running time
- 153 min
- Denis Villeneuve
- Screen writer
- Aaron Guzikowski
- Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo
- OFLC rating
- MA 15+
Since the Twin Towers came down in 2001, American cinema and TV has been preoccupied by torture. Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland) gets it done to save the country in 24, over and over again. Pretty young CIA agent Maya (Jessica Chastain) swallows her reservations and passes the bucket for the water-boarding in Zero Dark Thirty.
These are specific, rather than metaphorical cases, and in both the torture works. National security is served, whatever we think of the equation.
Prisoners is a movie that's right on the pulse of our times. Maybe that's why some people don't like it.
In Prisoners, his first English-language film, the Quebec director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) takes this question home to middle America. If someone abducted your child, how far would you go to get him or her back? In the land of the free, are you free to torture your neighbour?
Hugh Jackman starring in Prisoners.
Most of the heavyweight American newspapers have condemned this film as genre pap masquerading as art. I'm not so sure.
When Liam Neeson tortures and murders swarthy eastern European gangsters in Taken to get his daughter back, that's genre pap. It asks no hard questions and it offers violence as entertainment from the vengeful end of the spectrum. Prisoners doesn't do that. The violence here is considerable and ugly to watch, even more so because of the casting.
And yes, the movie presents itself as artistic, in the same way that Clint Eastwood did with Mystic River, a similarly impressive movie that got much better reviews. This film offers dark lighting, lots of rain, a brooding atmosphere expertly sustained and a sense of moral complexity with an A-list cast giving fine performances. Why that makes it pretentious to some critics has me baffled.
True, Prisoners struggles to resolve its own questions but at least it asks some. Most Hollywood movies and TV dramatise the torture question with large numbers: Jack Bauer must torture this or that terrorist in order to save a whole city, a whole country. One life versus 300 million.
And Bauer is a federal agent, a man skilled in the measured use of weapons and violence. Prisoners makes it simpler: what about one on one, with the hammer in your hand?
In Aaron Guzikowski's script, Hugh Jackman is a struggling carpenter, Keller Dover, a God-fearing Pennsylvania man with two children, a loving wife (Maria Bello) and a cellar full of food and water, just in case. He's not quite a good-old-boy redneck, but he does not live his life with an assumption of safety.
In the first scene, he takes his teenage son hunting in the woods. Ralph (Dylan Minnette) kills his first deer with a clean shot and his father is proud of him, although we can see that the boy is appalled. Riding home in the pickup, Keller (Jackman) passes on some advice: ''The most important thing your grand-daddy ever taught me is 'be ready'.''
There's a crucifix hanging from the rearview mirror, a dead deer in the back and a cultural assumption that all of that is OK. Keller and his family walk across the street to their neighbours, the Birches, for Thanksgiving, taking a slab of the deer.
Here, Mayflower America meets a modern redefinition, because these best friends are black. Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) have children of the same ages.
Ralph Dover and Eliza Birch (Zoe Borde) are closer than anyone knows; the younger girls, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), are besties. They skip out after the meal to find something in the Dover house and never come back.
Thanksgiving becomes a nightmare. Villeneuve charts the growing panic with cool, precise direction.
Hardcase local detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is quick to find a suspect but the police cannot hold him beyond 48 hours. Alex Jones (Paul Dano) has the IQ of a 10-year-old and there is no physical evidence to connect him to the girls. Nevertheless, Keller knows he must act. He abducts Jones and takes him to a derelict house.
The equation is simple, he tells Franklin, dragging him into it. We have to hurt him until he talks or they will die.
In a genre movie this is the climactic decision, the spur to action. But not here. It's just the starting point from which to explore the effects of trauma, both on those who suffer and those who administer.
Point of view is the key here. From the starting shot looking down the barrel at the deer, Villeneuve implicates us in the action.
In that horrible bathroom, with a halfwit bleeding and pleading, we are holding the hammer with Keller and Franklin, doing evil for a good reason. How does that feel?
Prisoners is an exceptionally gripping film, superbly made, thoughtful and discomfiting. It's probably the best performance Hugh Jackman has given. But more than that, it's a movie that's right on the pulse of our times. Maybe that's why some people don't like it.