Reel Review | Prisoners

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Reel Review | Prisoners

“Prisoners” is the first studio film from director Denis Villeneuve, best known for his powerfully moving indie films “Incendies” and “Polytechnique.” Although he has publicly stated that this film is his exact vision, I left the theater feeling that he had to make some compromises to get it made within the studio system. That said, it’s a breath of fresh air that a film of this nature is even being released from Hollywood. Its subject matter isn’t marketable in any sense of the word. The film follows two families as they deal with the horrors of having their daughters abducted and as they determine how far they are willing to go to find them. Hugh Jackman’s performance as one of the fathers really demonstrates the pain and misery a parent must endure during this sort of tragedy, and he parlays these emotions in a way that will connect with audiences. This aspect of the film is simply remarkable as it challenges the viewer to decide how far they are willing to push their moral boundaries. Intertwined is a rather pedestrian thriller which follows Detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) as he tries to track down the missing girls while time slowly ticks away. Over the first two acts these artistically intertwined storylines work well together, keeping the film both challenging and entertaining. But once the third act starts, the moral questions posed give way to a predictable Hollywood thriller with clunky execution. As stated …it feels compromised.

When award season arrives I have no doubt that the performances in the film will be mentioned often. Hugh Jackman turns in one his best performances and shows his range and versatility as an actor. Gyllenhaal’s performance is much more subdued, but you get a sense that, underneath, there is a man raging with anger from the atrocities he has witnessed. He won’t receive as many accolades as Jackman, but his performance is just as deserving. The same can be said for the rest of the cast; you could tell that they felt the script was something truly unique and challenging. At least…until the final act.  Rating: 18 / 25

For a film that deals with such a depressing tone — demonstrated by the visuals’ minimal use of bright colors — this is easily one of the best looking films of the year. Most of the credit belongs to cinematographer Roger Deakins, regarded as one of the best in the industry with films that include “Sid and Nancy,” “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Fargo” on his resume. The film’s visual clarity is second to none, and his use of true black is simply amazing. Often, characters move in and out of shadows and not once is there a loss in detail. It feels real and disturbing at the same time. That said, director Denis Villeneuve deserves ample credit as well for finding the correct camera angles and movements to reinforce the somber tone without pulling the audience away from the actors. He keeps the camera locked down during scenes of intense discussion or slowly pulls the camera inward during emotional moments, exemplifying the trapped nature the characters are feeling based on the decisions they have made. He also utilizes visual devices, showing elements through glass, mirrors or other framed objects, in order to give a sense that a character’s realities could be distorted. As a visual storyteller, he influences his audience without fingerprints.  Rating: 25 / 25

It’s hard to judge a film of this ilk based on it’s audio since it’s primarily a dialog driven film, which means most of the sound comes from the front of the screen with the surrounds being used on rare occasions. This isn’t a summer blockbuster that will blow you away sonically, the dialog is always understandable and the mix of ambient sound is perfect. The music continues the minimalist theme, demonstrating that sometimes less is more. Several key elements of the film play out with absolutely no underscore, offering audiences a sense of unfamiliarity given how used American audiences are to having music tell them what they should feel at any given moment. When music is used, the score from composer Johann Johannsson accentuates the narrative’s somber tone perfectly. The main theme has a drone to it that automatically raises tensions alongside the visuals on screen, but the orchestral elements offer a sense of hope and purpose. It’s a beautiful score that works perfectly for the film, but might be slightly harder to listen to as a stand-alone piece.  Rating: 21 / 25

There has been a lot of buzz about “Prisoners” since it screened at the Toronto International Film Festival, and for the most part it lived up to the hype. Like Darren Aronofsky’s “Requiem for a Dream,” this isn’t a film that is necessarily entertaining, but it will keep audiences riveted throughout its 158 minute running time. In my book though, the film could have been so much more. For two full acts the film transcended the screen and made me question what moral choices I would make in a similar situation. Even though I didn’t want to be, I became an active participant in a series of horrific and disturbing events (most of which take place off screen). Sadly, that feeling of engagement disappeared once the third act started and the film turned into a predictable thriller seen many times before. “Prisoners” is a brilliantly acted morality play that eventually crushes under the weight of its own lofty expectations. Rating: 17 / 25


Overall Rating: 81 / 100

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Dave Ziemer has been reviewing movies for over ten years. He is the founder and was the Program Director of SiriusXM Radio's Cinemagic channel.