Overview: A detective and an unhinged father work to uncover two missing girls. Warner Bros; 2013; Rated R; 153 Minutes.
In Images: Toward the beginning of this movie, there’s a shot of a dirt covered RV parked conspicuously at a rest stop, pointing into the woods, unmoving. Police lights explode in a downpour of rain. Cops move slowly inward. 2013 was a year of iconic film sequences (the uncut opening scene of Gravity, Tom Hanks’ after-rescue breakdown in Captain Phillips, Anwar Congo literally choking on guilt as The Act of Killing comes to a close), but for me, this scene might exhibit the most masterful singular images of the year. No one frames better than Roger Deakins (Deakins has but one actual peer, Emmanuel Lubezki, whose camera strength is in contemplation and chasing). This long shot, complete stillness except for a tiptoeing cop and a downpour, is almost a photograph. A sharp cut shows Detective Loki’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) silhouette backlit by the gas station. We’ve seen this ominous RV before. The hooks are in, and when the RV abruptly crashes into a tree, it pulls us at equal force. Then, one last unsettling image. Alex, the main suspect played by Paul Dano, is pulled from the wreck. He turns slowly and stupidly into the blinding flashlight. His blank face telling us what we already know. We’re not getting the answers we want.
A Borrowed Form: But that isn’t to say the credit goes solely to the seasoned cinematographer. Director Denis Villenueve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski have injected frantic urgency into this scene with the needle of the film’s slowburn opening. The pacing of the movie thereafter offers no reprieve. Villenueve and Deakins borrow David Fincher’s trademarks, blackwashing the color from this bleak world and adding shocking graffiti to the story—a decayed body strapped to a chair in a dingy basement, a dog tortuously lifted by its collar, snakes pouring out of bins of bloody clothes. We are given, over and over, new strands of thread to hold onto, with no certain promise that it will all come together. The story, in spite of our protests, is in no hurry to solve itself.
Performances: As far as I’m concerned, there is a place in every single movie for Paul Dano. I don’t know what he can’t do. Here, he excels where few would. Hugh Jackman, as one of the kidnap victims’ father, is the manifestation of rage required of his symbolic, morally gray role. But Jake Gyllenhaal is the exceptional, the standout, a performance of small gestures and expressions, obsession and mystery. In a story loaded with smaller stories, Gyllenhaal’s is the least articulated, but the most resonant. But, the movie’s worst offense is its waste of supporting talent. Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Maria Bello are all under-utilized, avatars for basic emotional reaction.
A Final Photograph: While hotly contended, the last image of this movie is one that I absolutely love. I’ll say nothing else.
Overall: Prisoners grabs by the throat, pins the chest, keeps the viewer trapped in states between anxiety, panic, and hopelessness, culminating in a heart pumping climax.