'Prisoners' (2013) Movie Review

Prisoners movie review
Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano in Prisoners
Photo: Warner Bros.

NOTE: This review was originally published on September 8, 2013 after I saw Prionsers at the Toronto Film Festival. I am republishing it today as it hits theaters this weekend.

Your child has been kidnapped and a suspect has been brought in for questioning. His battered RV was parked in your neighborhood around the same time your 6-year-old daughter went missing. After a couple of days, several rounds of questioning and a lie detector test it's determined he wasn't involved and is released. No other suspects exist, your girl is still missing and your spouse is a blubbering mess. What do you do?

Grade: B+

Prisoners"Prisoners" is a Warner Bros. release, directed by Denis Villeneuve and is rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout. The running time is .

The cast includes Hugh Jackman, Melissa Leo, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Dylan Minnette and David Dastmalchian.

Prepare for dark territory with Denis Villeneuve's Prisoners, a film where one father offers his response to the question above as an increasingly mysterious case surrounding his daughter's disappearance unfolds. In terms of tone, Prisoners is operating on the same dark level as David Fincher's Zodiac and Roger Deakins delivers some of the best cinematography of his career, turning something as trivial as a car coming to a curbside stop into a foreboding dolly shot. Even tree bark offers up riddles of its own.

Set during the grey and gloomy months of a Pennsylvanian November, we're introduced to Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their respective families. It's Thanksgiving and as the day wears the two soon-to-be victims ask if they can briefly run back to the Dovers'. Permission is granted, but not without their big brother and sister. The exception is noted, but not obeyed. They head back alone. They don't come back.

After an exhaustive search, the only suspect is the curious driver of the aforementioned RV, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Greasy and soft-spoken, Alex has the IQ of a ten-year-old and claims to have no knowledge of the children's whereabouts and is eventually allowed to go home with his adoptive mother (Melissa Leo). As you may guess, this doesn't go over too well with the little girls' parents, Keller in particular.

Jackman is rage personified. Any one of his incarnations as the comic book antihero Wolverine would run from Keller Dover. He's a father that will stop at nothing to get his little girl back and God be with anyone that gets in his way.

On the other side of the story is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man whose personal life is a bit more grey. Initially seen alone in a diner on Thanksgiving night, he gets the call to investigate Alex's RV parked near a wooded area. His methods seem sound and he's determined to get the two missing girls back, but there's nothing he can say or do that will convince Keller absolutely everything is being done.

For those that have seen the trailer and believe the film has been spoiled, it hasn't. The latter half offers a lot more to chew on including turns in the narrative and questions of morality that are both answered and left open to interpretation. To top it off, the performances across the board are stellar with Jackman and Gyllenhaal offering some of the best work I've seen from either of them, both worthy of Oscar attention. Jackman especially deserving of consideration along with a sneaky little gem of a performance from Melissa Leo.

Along with the cinematography from Deakins, which is sure to earn him his 11th Oscar nomination, the score from little known Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson, contributing for the first time to a major motion picture, brings a heightened level of menace to Deakins' cool greys and rain soaked pavement.

There is something, however, about Prisoners that keeps me from really falling for it and I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe it has to do with the overall efficiency of Villeneuve's direction, opposite a few coincidences that come up over the course of the nearly 150-minute running time that contradict how effective the rest of the film is. It's not fair, but the film is almost a victim of its own success in this case. Minor details end up amplified as a result, but given the complexity of the narrative, the performances, exceedingly high level of filmmaking and the balance of emotions, Prisoners is not a film to be missed.


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  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/navaneethks/ navaneethks

    Watching it on Sunday. Hope I like it. Watching Se7en today in preparation for it.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/andyluvsfilms/ andyluvsfilms

      I love Seven, i remember watching it on the big screen and jumping out of my skin at a certain unmentionable scene. Have fun with Prisoners, its likely to be a rental for me.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/TheLastEquivocationofBrist/ TheLastEquivocationofBrist

      I'm seeing it tomorrow morning! Before-noon cheapo show, ah yeah.

  • http://www.rabidpictures.com Yaz

    Very interested in this... Brings fond memories of Ransom and Seven to mind. Won't be able to check it this weekend but I'll have to make time during the week. Heard mostly good things!

  • BradyD

    I'll be seeing this film tonight...can't be any more excited for it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Ian/ Ian

    Will be seeing it this weekend.

  • David Marc

    B+ is about right. Comparisons in tone to Fincher's Seven and Zodiac are appropriate but Prisoners doesn't have quite as many moments that punch you in the face, even though there is some actual face punching in the film. Still I was totally immersed in the narrative throughout and the twists weren't telegraphed or given away at all. There's not a single bad performance and Jackman turns in what is probably the best of his career. He embodies rage and desperation in a way that most actors usually just play at in similar roles. The casting of Dano was spot on and with his wardrobe he completely disappears into the role of an archetypal simple minded adult child living at home with his rube aunt. The score, art direction, editing, and brilliant cinematography by Deakins are pitch perfect in weaving together a palpably creepy and dreadful tapestry in which some fairly interesting, if not somewhat facile, moral questions are struggled with by the protagonists. I don't think I'm giving anything away if you've seen the trailer that the line of who is good and who is evil gets somewhat blurred throughout the events of the film. It covers some ground familiar to anyone who has seen Fincher's Seven. Had the writer and director decided to resolve the story in a more ambiguous and risky, less conventional way, I think perhaps the film could approach the level of art and transcend mere entertainment. But that's a semantical debate. Prisoners accomplishes what it sets out to do, which is to provide a thoroughly engrossing creepy thriller detective mystery with some good face punching thrown in for good measure.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Samdini/ Samdini

    I agree with David, but the running time was bloated. More impact = shorter. Would've focused more on Detective Loki and less on Keller Dover (and face punching) without weakening the theme of good vs evil.

    Is the script available anywhere? My search was unsuccessful.

    • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/pomme/ pomme

      the script was available on the net when Wahlberg,Bale and Singer were involved in the movie (3/4 years ago) .i remember i read it and i thought it was bad-written,too "seven" cliches,predictable twists and the end...and i disliked the demonstrative violence of the script,the use of the religion

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/RonOnealFresh/ Ron Oneal Fresh

    Is a very solid film that overstays it's welcome by 30 minutes or so, it bumbles it's twist. I kept waiting expecting something spectacular but the reveal felt deus ex machina. Maybe I missed the breadcrumbs to it.

    I'd give it a strong B-grade on the mood, cinematography and acting performances. Jackman, Howard, Dano, Gyllenhaal.

    Fincher would have knocked that film out of the park. If he directed it.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/EPayneDDS/ EPayneDDS

    LOVED this movie. The way it ends bumped it up a whole grade.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/dam94/ dam94

    I loved this film. A very solid 4.5/5. A lot of elements were, in a way, perfect.


  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Chris/ Chris

    This movie is definitely not without it's problems, but it lingers. After watching it I was disturbed, entertained, but not blown away. A few days later I'm still thinking about it. The characters are what drive this film and the way they react to the situation. There are scenes that really stick with you. It's definitely not the best I've seen, but I'm still thinking about it. B+

  • Steve Sumner

    It was awful
    Terrible acting, unrealistic reactions thru out the movie, and the
    police force was dumber than the suspect with the development
    Of a 10 year old kid( so they said).

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Beautifulm/ Beautifulm

    It was solid, but Zodiac it was not. Jackman was over the top and one note throughout. Gyllenhaal was solid. The cinematography was beautiful and the mood fitting, but the twists were awful.

  • http://letterboxd.com/gman/ G-Man

    Very strong movie. Great review, Brad!

  • jessied44

    Well received by audience yesterday morning. Lots of conversation sparked afterwards which was a strange start to a Saturday. This is an excellent, well made, well acted film and a great start to Awards season. Definitely a contender depending upon what shows up in next few months.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/SonnyCorleone/ Sonny Corleone

    The tone of this movie is the best thing about it and that is made by Roger Deakins along with the music. He is one of few DP's whose name alone, makes a movie worth checking out.

  • http://www.ropeofsilicon.com/profile/Deliciousky/ David Delaney

    That keyboard deserved what it got.

  • srbija

    the end is sucks!what was with dover??will be a second part of the movie?