I first saw Prisoners during its theatrical run back in 2013. It was a day that sticks out in my mind for a couple reasons. The first being that I encountered the film while attempting to remain inside of the cinema complex from opening to close. The whole thing was an experiment I had thought up for my creative nonfiction class, catch the first film of the day and then try and make it to the last screening that evening without arousing too much suspicion. I ended up seeing five films over the course of that experiment, but the other reason it sticks out in my mind is that Prisoners is by far the film that affected me the most that day. It’s the film that announced the arrival (no pun intended) of director Dennis Villeneuve who would later go on to direct the Oscar nominated Sicario (2015) and Arrival (2016). Now with the recent release of his Blade Runner 2049 (2017), and October signaling the entrance into spooky season, I thought now would be a great time to revisit his atmospheric masterclass in tension. This is Prisoners and this week it’s culturised’s Pick of Online Film.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a man that’s prepared for just about anything. He’s a contractor, a doomsday prepper, and lived through the tragedy of his own father’s suicide while emerging on the other side with a wife (Mario Bello), son, and daughter. This Thanksgiving the Dover family walks down the street to Keller’s best friend from high school, Franklin Birch’s (Terrence Howard) house. Birch is himself a family man, his wife Nancy (Viola Davis) is a veterinarian and one of their daughters, Joy (Kyla-Drew Simmons), is best friends with Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), just like their fathers. Soon, after the meal and while the adults sit around visiting, the little ones grow restless and ask their parents if they can walk back to the Dover’s to look for Anna’s toy whistle. The adults agree as long as their older siblings go with them. Hours pass, it’s time to go, but the girls are gone. The eldest children say their younger sisters never came to find them. But there was an old RV they were playing on earlier while out for a walk, and they thought someone might be inside. The family bursts from the house to begin looking. Soon, the police are involved, bringing Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) into the mix. He tracks down the RV and its owner Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a man with the IQ of a ten-year-old who lives in the care of his aunt Holly (Melissa Leo). It’s certain that not all is as it seems, but answers don’t come easy in this twisted journey down the rabbit hole of how far people will go to save the ones they love.
Some films affect our physical selves; in fact I would go so far as to say the truly great ones do this, you can be moved to tears or erupt into deep belly laughs. Then there are the films that make us squirm in our seats, never really allowing the audience to get comfortable. Prisoners is one such film. I can remember sitting in the theater and being shocked at the mobility it was creating in my fellow audience members. The intensity of the experience was nothing short of palpable. But how does the film go about creating this mobility, the supreme sense of unease? The answer is threefold. First is the script, any tale dealing with abduction of children is uncomfortable. A child in danger is one of the great taboos in Hollywood, it cuts too close to the bone for the majority of audience members and is still seen as “film-suicide” in some circles. Additionally the cast is uniformly excellent, the one-two punch of Jackman and Gyllenhaal is magnificent to behold, but I’ll delve more into that later. The masterstroke here though, and what elevates Prisoners above simple genre fair, is the directing. And fair warning, things are going to get spoiler-y from here on out.
Villeneuve had made one other feature length film, 2010’s Incendies, before his breakout in 2013, which saw the release of Prisoners and which, coincided with Gyllenhaal’s headlining of Enemy (which was actually filmed before Prisoners but released after). Still, regardless of experience, the amount of control and confident decision-making in Prisoners is astounding. The story is essentially three narrative lines twisted within one another: the search for the girls by Detective Loki, Keller’s own search for his daughter, and Keller’s emotional and mental descent. The atmosphere of tension Villeneuve creates relies on all three of these narrative lines, playing off each other and the rhythm with which he revisits each one. And one thread that displays this approach is the questioning of Alex Jones. It’s an element that crops up in three plot strands and drives the narrative towards its ultimate conclusion.
Originally Jones is questioned by Detective Loki. Where it becomes abundantly clear that Alex’s mental disability means that he couldn’t have possibly kidnapped the girls, Loki is forced to release Alex due to being unable to press charges after forty-eight hours. Convinced that Jones is hiding something from the police and merely “playing” crazy, Dover—with the aid of Franklin—abducts Jones and chains him up in the bathroom of Dover’s father’s abandoned apartment building.
It’s at this point that Villeneuve begins to play with the rhythm of the storytelling to create tension. The film starts slow, then moves quickly through the abduction, then slow as Loki is forced to release Alex. Once Keller gets ahold of him, the tempo picks up rapidly and Villeneuve uses violence as his metronome. In rapid succession Keller questions Alex, then he begins to punch him, then he brings out a hammer. Then we don’t see Alex for a while. Its three rapid emotional beats followed by another slow break, while the camera visits moves on to visit other elements of the story. Occasionally we’ll see Keller or hear Alex’s screams emanating from the bathroom – small callbacks to the films earlier violent rhythm. But it’s not until Franklin breaks down in front of his wife and she demands to see Alex that Villeneuve allows his appearance back on screen. And even then he drags it out, covering Jones’ face with a bloody bag and then framing the shot with the broken sink in the way before finally, finally, revealing his face to the audience. It’s horrific. It hits the audience like a punch to the gut. And it’s not even close to the end.
In another scene later in the film, Keller has employed his contractor skills to force Alex into the bathrooms shower and walled him in. He’s also rigged the water heater to either spray scalding hot or freezing cold. Keller is clearly breaking down, his missing daughter driving him to do the unthinkable. He continues to question Alex, doggedly believing that he knows something, unable to understand why he won’t tell him. And Villeneuve forces us to watch the entire thing. It’s the small details in these moments that drive us to move uncomfortably in our seats. Shots of the steam leaving the small pipe in the wall that Keller uses to communicated with Alex. The few scenes inside the shower/torture chamber where we can only see the pin prick of light from the pipe illuminating Alex’s bloody swollen eye. His screams, as Keller maneuvres hot/cold knobs with workmanlike efficiency, overpower all other sound in the scene.
There are other, less disturbing examples of Villeneuve directing skill. He holds tight control of script, where a surprising amount of dialogue in the film is religious-based. Keller prays multiple times for guidance and the villain’s motive is ultimately a “war on God.” But Villeneuve wisely lets these plot moments merely supplement the film rather than dominate it. As mentioned above the casting is a masterstroke. Jackman in particular has never been better. It’s hard because of the amount of goodwill he has built playing superheroes and being a genuinely nice person over the years is a stark contrast to how the audience sees him perform the acts he does during the course of the film. But that’s exactly what Villeneuve is going for: Keller Dover is a man that believes he is prepared for anything, and then one day he is confronted with an event he couldn’t stockpile his basement to guard against. And when he’s forced to improvise, to see the world in shades other than black and white his spiral begins. For all of these reasons and more Prisoners is culturised’s Pick of Online Film.
Prisoners is available on Amazon Video and iTunes in both the US and UK