Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Actors: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Runtime: 146 min
A disturbing film has the potential to have a profound impact on its audience. Images can remain in the mind long after the credits have rolled, causing one to seriously consider that which they have seen. There is a fine line, however, between a film that is disturbing in order to convey its message, and one that veers into the realm of over-the-top. Prisoners boasts a fascinating and morally ambiguous concept, and there is much potential here for a thought-provoking film. Unfortunately, director Denis Villeneuve is unable to draw the line with his content, going so far that eventually, the film stops being arresting, and starts being senseless.
When his young daughter and her friend disappear on a rainy Thanksgiving afternoon, father Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) embarks on a quest to find their kidnapper and bring him to justice. Although the man leading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), has already declared prime subject Alex Jones (Paul Dano) to be innocent, Keller is convinced that he is responsible, and is willing to cross all kinds of moral lines in his attempt to extract the truth. Terrence Howard also stars as Franklin Birch, the other suffering father who questions Keller’s extreme methods. Following both the investigation of Detective Loki and the acts of Keller, the film presents a moral conundrum: How far can one go to catch a monster, without becoming one themselves?
The acting in this film is top-notch. A portrait of a typical, loving, and functional family is painted initially as the film takes its time in setting up the dramatic events, so that when Jackman’s Keller does become maniacal, the audience cannot help but be on his side. Howard creates an effective moral compass in Franklin, and Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is eager and determined as he gives this investigation his all. The standout performance, however, is that of Paul Dano as the mysterious and decidedly creepy Alex. A grown man with the IQ of a ten-year-old, Alex claims to be innocent, but all evidence points to the contrary. Dano’s portrayal is so ambiguous that the audience is constantly torn between feelings of loathing and pity. As we watch his suffering, the audience is forced to consider: If Alex is innocent, then Keller’s actions are clearly monstrous, but if he is guilty, do these extremes then become justified?
Many techniques are effectively used within this film to create the tense atmosphere. Much occurs at night, in dim lighting, and unsettling music punctuates these scenes. However, I strongly believe that sometimes, that which is not shown on screen can have a greater impact than that which is. Brutal imagery may be necessary for a brutal subject, yet this film leaves nothing to the imagination. Running at two and a half hours, the film seems to go on and on as it spirals down from one horrific scene into the next. Eventually, the mystery at the centre of the film begins to lose its potency, as one simply wishes for the film to reach a conclusion and the madness to end.
Prisoners examines the extent to which an otherwise typical family man would be willing to go to save his child. An audience is presented with many moral ambiguities that have the potential to promote serious thought. However, as the film progresses, it strays from tense into over-the-top. Even the generally stoic press audience with which I viewed the film reacted, and not well; many left, looked away, or even sat with their heads between their knees. Creating strong emotion may be the goal of a film, but should never occur at the cost of the message of the film itself.
Photo Credits: Toronto International Film Festival