Murder mysteries are notorious for being incredibly difficult to nail across all creative media, inevitably placing the 2013 thriller Prisoners under scrutiny. Fortunately, director Denis Villeneuve does his best to avoid all the clichés of this genre to create a film that is wrought with pain, fear and intrigue, and at times, literally taking your breath away. Just to warn you in advance, there are major spoilers in this review.
It goes without saying that Prisoner’s strongest element is its performances, particularly by the two leads, played by Academy Award nominees Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Jackman draws from his tenure as the tempestuous Wolverine to portray Keller Dover, a human being that becomes a walking case of dynamite ready to explode at any minute. His volatile personality is contrasted by the initially equanimous and cool Detective Loki, who eventually falls into the descent of madness that he aims to avoid. The supporting cast, while not as commanding as the leads, are still impressive, with the likes of Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano. Although I was initially hesitant at the way the writers treated Dano’s character Alex, one can imagine just how challenging it is to play a retarded character who is tortured literally and figuratively.
I’ve learned that good films are ones that effortlessly instigate emotion amongst the audience, which is particularly evident in the torture scenes of the film. Picture the placid and [eventually proved to be] innocent Alex, savagely beaten by the furious Keller to the point where his face is drowned in blood, his eyes inoperable and his speech patterns reduced to screams and whimpers. Alex’s raw agony is effectively injected into our hearts, leading us to question whether Keller is the righteous man he claims to be. The highly provocative and confronting nature of Prisoners is primarily owed to these scenes laden throughout the second act, and is guaranteed to make your heart bleed. It is not a movie for those with faint hearts, and is the first movie to give me nightmares since seeing Jaws at the age of 10.
Speaking of story, let’s be realistic: the plot is essentially a whodunit, and relies heavily on suspense and ambiguity, but has a weak plot twist in the last 10 minutes. When it is revealed who the perpetrator is, we are disappointed, due to the lack of a buildup and the motive. Despite this, Prisoners atones for these errors in its conclusion with its focus on the deterioration in human relationships and the enormous moral complexity. The engagement prior to the final minutes is so strong, you will not leave your seat, even if you have to go to the bathroom. In addition to its tightly edited 2 hour 30 minute runtime, the film forces both observation and participation from the audience members. Little wonder, then, why Prisoners is cited by critics and audiences as one of the best thrillers of the 2010s.
Rating - ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆