Monday, September 23, 2013

Movie Review: Intense "Prisoners" worth the cringing

This column was originally published in the KPC Media Group newspapers and online at Read the original column here. Republished on The Pop Tarts with permission. 

I'll be the first to admit that I was afraid to go see "Prisoners," and there were moments I wished I were in a different theater, watching something much lighter and more fun.

But I don't regret watching this incredibly intense movie. In fact, it was a truly interesting, edge-of-your-seat experience, from dreadful beginning to delightful open ending. It's chock-full of compelling performances, thought-provoking moral quandries and a dense mystery that, while a little schlocky at moments, is still fascinating as it unravels.

"Prisoners" opens with the abduction of two little girls, Anna (Erin Gerasmiovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) on Thanksgiving Day. A man in an RV is quickly apprehended, but when the search turns up nothing and the police, led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), are forced to release Alex Jones (Paul Dano), Anna's father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes the law into his own hands and abducts Alex to question him, involving Joy's parents, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) in his scheme. Meanwhile, Detective Loki is working within the law to unravel the mystery of the disappearance of Anna and Joy.

"Prisoners" is about people dealing with a horrible tragedy. Keller feels he must do something, while Franklin and Nancy are complicit in his crimes but reluctant to get their hands dirty. Anna's mother, Grace (Maria Bello), meanwhile, just sleeps most of the time. As time winds on and the hopes of finding their children alive wanes, their reactions get more intense.

But what really makes "Prisoners" interesting to watch is the dichotomy between Detective Loki, who works by the book, and Keller, who doesn't. It's uncomfortable to watch Keller grimly torture Alex - he takes no real pleasure in it - because torture is tough to see, but it's even worse to watch because it's so easy to sympathize with him, too. I think of the parents I know, all of whom intensely love their children, and I can't help but wonder if they'd go to the same lengths if they thought it was the only way to save their children's lives. 

The movie can hinge on the actions of these two men in part because the actors' performances are so incredible. Hugh Jackman brings a restless energy to the role of Keller. He seems to be pacing, even when he's sitting still, and the energy builds and builds until he clearly can't take it anymore and he lashes out, violently. Jake Gyllenhaal, meanwhile, gives a masterfully understated performance. Often, it's just a twitch of his lips or a few rapid blinks of his eyes, but there are a million tiny ways that he shows how intensely he cares. It's never clear, though, if his top motivation is to actually find the missing girls, or simply to solve the case.

And that's another one of the things that makes "Prisoners" such a wonderful movie. So much is unclear, even at the end of the movie, and by leaving the audience hanging a little bit, it forces us to really think about the characters. I love it when movies give me the chance to draw a few of my own conclusions, rather than spoonfeeding every detail. 

Don't get me wrong, "Prisoners" is a tough one to watch. I don't think I could watch it if I had a young daughter of my own, and even without being a parent, there were moments that were almost too much for me. The movie made me cringe and squirm and filled me with dread, but in the end, the excellent story and performances by the lead actors kept me interested all the way to the bittersweet end.

Jenny's Take: See it before it leaves theaters.

(Rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout. Runs 153 minutes.)

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