Why “Prisoners” will stay with you

As you watch Denis Villeneuve’s crime thriller Prisoners, it becomes apparent quite quickly that the main characters are dealing with a moral struggle of how best to act in such a difficult situation.

Without giving anything away, let’s dive into what we know. Prisoners is a film based around the kidnapping of two young girls, from two different families who are sharing a Thanksgiving dinner together. There aren’t many clues aside from a camper parked within the neighborhood operated by a mentally-ill young adult, thus leading to aggravation for the families as the girls remain missing day after day.

The two families largely handle it differently. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, the father of missing Anna Dover, as a man who likes being in control. Dover has a basement stocked with survival supplies, is devout in his faith and passionate about his family. So when he loses control over his daughter, he snaps.

His neighbor Franklin Birch, played magnificently by Terrence Howard handles it far different. Franklin is a much more emotionally reserved man than his neighbor Keller. He seems to be quite numb to the loss of Zoe initially whereas Keller gets emotional and physical almost immediately. His wife Nancy, played extraordinarily by Viola Davis, is more motherly. In contrast to her counterpart Grace Dover, she manifests her emotions in a compassionate way. Faced with a tough moral decision, Nancy operates in a calculated manner. She knows what needs to be done for the sake of her daughter and she isn’t reluctant to see it done no matter the consequences. Meanwhile Grace (Maria Bello) shuts down physically. She sleeps all day, weeps and takes medication.

Despite both families sharing equal involvement in this tragedy, the movie focuses on the destruction of Keller Dover. Hugh Jackman enacts a performance as dark as we’ve ever seen from him. It is really fascinating watching this father literally pull out no stops to find his daughter. His fear of being without control is manifested in the way he ardently pursues each of the person of interest of the case. He has no faith in the establishment, that of the police department led by detective Loki.

The movie quickly pushes the boundaries of moral ground. How far is too far in searching for a kidnapped family member? What are your limits?  Other than the initial five minutes of the film when the families share dinner, the better part of the two-and-a-half hour runtime keeps you on the edge of your seat. This isn’t a film that drags on, that has unnecessary scenes. Villeneuve paces this thriller masterfully, enabling the audience to really feel each moment and lose themselves in the characters that they most closely identify with. A mother watching this film will see themselves as Viola Davis. A father as either Keller or Franklin. A brother as Ralph. A loner perhaps as initial suspect Alex Jones (played by Paul Dano).

As the film enters its climax, the establishment takes over. Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) doesn’t rest until the situation is resolved. The audience is also taken for some unsuspecting turns and even as the final credits roll, the film doesn’t leave you. It’s a difficult subject matter that the artful Villeneuve handles brilliantly. He doesn’t tread lightly when it comes to showing the audience the dark side of such a tragic circumstance. It are these scenes, the moral dilemma and empathy for each character which ultimately force this film to stay with you.

Prisoners is expertly acted and directed. As mentioned, Jackman reaches a place he has yet to go physically and emotionally as an actor in his great career, Gyllenhaal beside him largely owns the second half of the film and puts in as good of a performance as he’s ever shown. But that’s not the main reason why this film is a must-see and an Oscar contender. More importanly, Prisoners, takes us to a place nobody wants to be and yet leaves us feeling OK after having been there.

**** (4 Stars)

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