Preparing for the worst
Denis Villeneuve's 'Prisoners' is not his best, but story's complexity makes for a riveting tale
Posted: October 9, 2013
Walled in by obsession. Loki loses his patience with Alex Jones, who was found inside a suspicious caravan on the day two girls disappeared.
The final minutes of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's somber new film Prisoners are as dark and thrilling as anything that precedes them, but their impact could have been infinitely more powerful had Hugh Jackman's character not been so incredibly thick.
Jackman plays Keller Dover, a manly family man with a remodeling and repairs business who in the film's opening scene accompanies his son, Ralph, on his first deer hunt, and does his best to make the youthful teenage boy feel he is now in some way being initiated into manhood. Keller tells Ralph how his father used to always be prepared for everything, good or bad. In other words, a real Boy Scout. Of course, he will soon face a situation he has no idea how to handle.
But there is something off about Keller. He is intensely serious about everything, his body literally taught with tension, and in a pivotal scene early in the film, when he is searching the house and we get the first glimpse of his basement, the camera lingers just long enough for us to notice a gas mask hanging in the corner.
Halfway through the film, when we return to the basement, we get a better view of the neatly arranged stock on the shelves, and get the disturbing impression Keller is a survivalist. Prisoners doesn't elaborate - the film is more show than tell, and you need some patience for this simple yarn spun out over two and a half hours - but one questions what purpose this information serves our understanding of the plot's central event, other than to make us increasingly uneasy.
Directed by Dennis Villeneuve
With Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
This central event is the abduction of Keller's and his wife's young girl, Anna, together with Joy, the young daughter of the Dover's friends, the Birches, with whom they spent Thanksgiving when they thought the children could quickly go back home to look for an SOS whistle.
Villeneuve already signals in a scene very early on that we should be suspicious of a caravan that is parked in the neighborhood. We cannot see who is inside, but we know it is an ominous vehicle because we get at least two shots from the point of view of someone unknown on the inside. Luckily, Ralph sees the caravan, and when his sister disappears, he mentions it to his parents, who inform the police.
The police track down the caravan soon enough, but the driver, the young man Alex Jones, seems to be either on drugs or otherwise handicapped, and as he tries to flee, he rams the vehicle into a tree, obviously making his involvement in the disappearance of the girls seem all the more likely. But with him clamming up, the police thinking he is merely mentally handicapped, and the law requiring either arrest or release after 48 hours of detention, he is let go, which angers Keller to no end.
This is where he takes it upon himself to solve the mystery of his daughter's disappearance. But life is not so simple, and while we have grave suspicions that Alex had anything to do with the abduction, one or two tiny but not insignificant moments make us question what he is thinking, or at least what he has seen and may not want to share because of whatever fear he has.
In the end, the film turns out to be infinitely more complex than we may have anticipated, and there are countless incidents or images that seem to be loose ends - or worse, dead ends - that we may never tie together. But slowly, things fall into place. The theme of a maze, made visible by one particular loony whom we and the police notice once word spreads of Anna's and Joy's disappearance, is very appropriate here.
The major investigating officer is Detective Loki, and as played by Jake Gyllenhaal there is some trace of his character in Zodiac, as the normally cool and rational individual becomes very attached to the investigation, to the point where he may very well take the law into his own hands if he feels the law is not proving to be effective enough on its own.
As the snow falls in rural Pennsylvania and hope disappears of ever finding the two innocent girls, the action escalates, mostly due to Keller's and Loki's growing obsession with finding the perpetrator of the crime. However, Keller's obviously strained relationship with his wife (we almost never see the two of them together in a scene) and Loki's past, which we can surmise has been filled with sadness even though we have no idea what is at the root of this sadness, are left unexplored by the film, and ultimately leaves us more unattached to the narrative than we ought to be.
Villeneuve has made some wonderful films in the past, including the widely acclaimed Incendies and the extraordinary Polytechnique. Both of them were violent films, but they were told with great style and a sense for telling a story in an interesting way. Although Prisoners is without a doubt his worst film to date, it is a work most directors would be proud of, and despite the slow pace of the storytelling (we only grasp the title almost right at the end thanks to a newspaper headline), it remains a strong presentation of an investigation where leads seem to be in such short supply.
André Crous can be reached at