Tuesday, 15 October 2013


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If evil triumphs when good people do nothing, how minor - or large - is the victory when good people choose do evil things in an attempt to achieve good? That's the troubling question at the heart of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's first English-language film, Prisoners, a thriller and police procedural which may have you questioning your own ethics as it implicates you in its lead character's extreme decisions.

That's Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), a building contractor and a man's man; the kind of guy who teaches his adolescent son to shoot deer and instructs him to be prepared for anything (Keller's basement filled with enough food, water and fuel supplies to last several months should the need arise).

And when Keller's young daughter goes missing, along with her best friend and daughter of the Kellers' (wife Grace, played by Maria Bello) friends and neighbours, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), he's prepared to do what it takes to find his little girl. If that means taking the law -- and the police's number one suspect -- into his own hands, than so be it.

Alex Jones (an excellent Paul Dano) is a bespectacled young man with the IQ of a 10-year-old and creepily, whispery voice that recalls a Michael Jackson parody. Jones, who lives with is widowed aunt (Melissa Leo), also drives an RV like the one the girls were earlier seen playing on (and which the audience witnessed circling the neighbourhood like a shark looking for prey), and this, his mental state and a scene involving animal cruelty leaves Keller (and us) in no doubt that Jones abducted the girls. And if the police, headed up by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), can't get him to talk, Keller will.

Jones becomes the prisoner (or one of them) of the title; held in an abandoned apartment belonging to Keller where he, and, reluctantly, Franklin, beat and torture the suspect in the hopes that he'll eventually cave in. And Villeneuve makes us both witness and party to this torture, asking us whether we, even if we believe Jones to be guilty, would go to such lengths and such brutality to ensure the safe return of a loved one. Is Keller doing what any one of us would do? Or has he gone too far?

I'm on the record as not being a fan of Hugh Jackman so it should probably be taken with a grain of salt when I suggest that his performance in Prisoners is arguably his best to date (even the role of Jean Valjean in Les Miserables, which earned Jackman his first Oscar nomination, failed to impress). The closest he's come to playing a hard man is as Wolverine, but the tough guy antics Jackman's called on to perform here are not of the comic book variety; they're more real and human, and it's only when his emotions become OTT that he is less convincing.

Gyllenhaal is excellent, too. The role of Detective Loki doesn't provide much in the way of back story or psychology but then again, a detective who has 100 per cent success rate when it comes to solving cases probably doesn't have much time for a personal life: the case unfolds over a matter of days and we only ever see Loki on the job; the only time he gets to emote or unload emotionally is on his Chief or his work desk.

There's the suggestion of a harsh childhood (perhaps that accounts for the constant blinking?) and perhaps his steely determination in the pursuit of the law is a constant battle to right the wrongs once committed against him? Either way, Gyllenhaal makes him dogged in his pursuit of the perpetrator yet quietly noble in his adherence to the letter of the law. Paul Dano and Melissa Leo also give terrific performances but it's a shame how little Bello, Howard and Davis, all fine actors capable and worthy of more, are utilised.

The world in Prisoners is a grim one, even more so than in Villeneuve's previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies. Roger Deakins' cinematography amplifies that grimness, barely letting any light in. A lot of the action occurs during the night while during the day, if it's not snowing it's raining, and sometimes both; rendering the landscape -- both physical and moral -- grey, muted and cold.

This combined with the constant knot in your stomach, which expands and shrinks as the film effectively increases and releases the tension (diminished only slightly in the third act where there is twist upon twist and the pennies begin to drop), does not make for a pleasant viewing experience. But it does make Prisoners an experience worth enduring.

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