Nick Nunziata: As the leaves change color so too does the pallor of cinema. Explosive special effects driven movies fade and give way to dark and deliberately paced films with minimalist score and quieter camera moves and edits. Prisoners attempts to serve as connective tissue by marrying a formula thriller plot to an arthouse persona but with an all-star cast and production value befitting a movie aiming to win the weekend. There have been more abduction movies that one can count but where Prisoners butters its bread is both in the procedural aspect of the crime and also in the dangerous side effects of assumption and how emotion blurs the lines between right and wrong. Denis Villenueve’s eloquent, resonant, and fatty film benefits from absolutely top notch performers in roles big and small to distract from a premise milked weekly on cop shows and several times a year in the feature film world.
Renn Brown: Yep, that’s about the long and short of it (emphasis on the former).
Zodiac ambitions meet CSI conventions with surface elements –the stellar cast, Roger Deakins’ characteristically sophisticated photography– ensuring it reads more as a hard-hitting drama than the potboiler procedural it turns out to be. When, say, a character breaks some things and squeezes his forehead in frustration, only to spot a missed clue out of the corner of his eye, you’ll know what kind of movie this really is. Still, Villeneuve isn’t merely slipping one by us- there’s great work on a variety of levels, and there’s no doubt it’s a refreshingly adult film, deliberately timed as the summer tapers off. One might argue it luxuriates in its own dour universe a little too long before suddenly rushing through the conveniences towards the end, but the film is never not compelling.
First and foremost are the notable performances from Jackman and Gyllenhaal. We’ve seen anger from the Australian more often than not, but here Jackman shades his growls and tantrums with a small-town self-righteousness that’s new for him. Gyllenhaal’s presence as a dedicated detective cements the Zodiac comparison, but he’s no amateur obsessive here. Coated in stray tattoo’d symbols, sporting a masonic ring, and clearly the most competent person in town, there’s an edge and command to him that suggests we have many more sides of Gyllenhaal left to see.
Nick Nunziata: Once you get used to Jake’s chosen tic, a painfully blinking eye, he really does deliver a signature performance. Especially considering that his character is tasked with moving the procedural along while Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, and Terence Howard ride the emotional roller coaster. Paul Dano gets to further his weirdo repertoire as well but it’s truly Jackman’s centerpiece.When their young children disappear on Thanksgiving two families are torn apart and when the answers don’t come they seek other means of finding justice. Jackman’s religious Doomsday Prepper goes above and beyond, and for much of the first half the film dances around whether his tactics or the code-following law enforcement officials have the most potential to bear fruit. The topic of child abduction is one that stirs emotions in even the coldest of viewers and there are truly powerful scenes. When the film is really clicking is in its midsection where all the threads are laid out and the air of mystery remains.
Renn Brown: It’s hard to pin down exactly where the movie lets itself become a two-and-a-half hour thriller, but I feel it may well be early parts of the film. Great pains are taken to introduce us to these two nuclear family and to painstakingly wave a complex web of threads that to pay off later. Eventually we take a turn through very familiar procedural territory as elements of cult and horror-movie flavor enter the picture- this is merely a detour though, almost as if writer Aaron Guzikowski had aims to subvert some procedural tropes. The success of that is debatable since the ultimate destination isn’t too far removed from your usual crime move rug-pull.
On second thought, it may be that Guzikowski and Villeneuve have an issue integrating the thematically meaty material with the traditional crime story and the constraints of being a mainstream-targeted film. They do succeed in layering some depth and tragic subtext into the story, but this is a separate concern from moving a twisty kidnapping mystery ahead, and thus we nearly get two movies fused together. All those aforementioned surface elements make it a graceful combination, but there are seams nonetheless.
Nick Nunziata: There are absolutely seams. One thing I appreciate about the movie is that it takes an old-school approach and have a story not tonally not unlike Sidney Lumet’s films of the 70s. As a result the film does meander from time to time but it’s never not interesting and even when it stretches the patience of its audience it still finds a way to provide some nuance that is maybe not fresh for the genre but at least a nice diversion of what we expect. It helps also that there are some very dark images and ideas present the film about small towns and how people approach emotionally challenging situations. With the music being so spare and the camera taking its sweet time and sitting still, it does a lot towards establishing a tone and giving you a feeling of dread.
Renn Brown: There’s no doubt Deakins kills it, shooting Georgia for Pennsylvania and capturing a paranoid grayness to the southern suburbs that befits the dour story. There’s care in every shot- the kind of confident stillness achieved when you can depend on every actor lighting up the scene. Reinforcing that, Villeneuve deftly alludes to some heavy character elements –the aforementioned symbology all over Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s basement full of survival stock in particular– without letting them take over. Instead they sit in the background and accentuate the environment, alluding to the deeper fears that threaten to overwhelm these characters when faced with a worst-case scenario. Much of this maturity is captured by the very final moment of the film, which –without spoiling it– is a subversive, interesting take on what would otherwise be a rote wrap-up sequence. It’s a an excellent decision that leaves you contemplating the right ideas and ambiguities, and it goes a long way towards fitting it in with the 70s drama Nick mentions.
Compelling, intense, and subtly gorgeous, Prisoners is a fantastic start to what is typically the best time of the year for films. It’s really the kind of movie not made often enough, making it a must-see as the superheroes and sequels gear down and the richer fare gears up.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars
Nick Nunziata: It won’t be a movie people champion loudly or one that gets a lot of multiple viewings due to its tonal approach and running time. It’s not a sexy movie and it isn’t as aggressive as one might expect given the subject matter. It’s a measured piece of work but a good one. It’s overlong but not in a way that scuttles the work it takes to get there. It’s just not concerned with rushing to the finish line. See it for Jake’s great work and for its unwillingness to be a typical 2000’s crime film.
Out of a Possible 5 Stars