Saturday, January 25, 2014


A dark, overlooked gem available on Movies on Demand

     Prisoners was released in September and received great reviews and then disappeared by the time we could have seen it.  Earlier this week, it was overlooked by the Academy.  Dang!  Really?  It’s the creepiest mainstream movie that I can think of since The Silence of the Lambs (1991) and it moves like lightning, though it’s two and a half hours long.  Aaron Guzikowski’s script is a corker and reminiscent of some of
Dennis Lehane’s or Michael Connelly’s best novels.  The exteriors look a little like the rural areas along the Ohio River in Lambs, while some of the interiors resemble Mystic River (2003).  The production design looks exactly like where these people would live.  We were stunned when we saw in the end credits that it was shot in Georgia because it looks so authentically like one of the smaller cities along the Pennsylvania Turnpike, where it’s supposed to be set.  

The Two Missing Daughters
     Denis Villeneuve’s direction feels like Hitchcock because he makes the viewer complicit in what the principal character, played by Hugh Jackman, does.  The story begins after two families celebrating Thanksgiving together realize the youngest daughters are missing.  Villeneuve sets up the tension a few minutes before when the viewer shares the point of view of someone watching the house.  Jackman is the father who goes after the person he believes to be the prime suspect and what he does is wrenching, though his certainty made me consider what I’d do in the same position.

Maria Bello and Hugh Jackman
Jackman comes off like an Old Testament prophet, who ends up blindsided when he remembers the forgiveness of the New Testament.  Incandescent and then self-immolating in his rage, Jackman goes deep.  I don’t know if he can be nuanced as a performer; he swings between charm in some parts, despair and rage in others, but he doesn’t combine them in a role.  However, he’s a star in this, even though it’s an ensemble piece, and he’s so much stronger than in the over-rated Les Misérables.  

Jake Gullenhaal
     Jake Gyllenhaal layers greater detail physically with tics and sudden explosiveness as a detective who has solved all his cases, but is stymied in this one by a lack of resources in the new normal economy.  Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, and Maria Bello play the other parents.  All are powerful, but Davis 
Viola Davis and Terrence Howard
takes a small role and invests it with a disquieting sense of moral ambiguity.  From her body language in the hospital scene towards the end, it’s impossible to know where her loyalties lie beyond her daughter.  
Melissa Leo and Paul Dano

Paul Dano and Melissa Leo, almost unrecognizable as if she’s aged ten years, are the primary suspect and his aunt.   Both look and behave just like neighbors or residents in the heart of the country; people you wave to from time to time, but don’t actually know deeply.  It’s probably true in other countries as well, which provides the set-up for these crimes.  Broadway veteran Len Cariou makes his small, telling part count as a retired, washed up priest.

     There’s a subplot involving another suspect that made my skin crawl.  It will affect other viewers adversely as well, especially those who are ophidiophobic.  It intrigues and shocks, but when I thought about it later, I couldn’t understand the reason that the character had remained in that city or why no one had pushed the character to seek intense psychological counseling.  It adds a welcome layer of narrative complexity, but it’s a flaw because it doesn’t make the same sense as everything else.  

     Roger Deakins’ cinematography makes the mundane (1970s subdivision neighborhood, local liquor store next to an intersection) look alienating.  The clear, clean color focusing primarily on gray blues and muddy browns brought to mind Krzysztof Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (1989), based on the Ten Commandments, especially the first part and the fifth part (A Short Film About Killing).  A couple of characters believe they’re at war with God.  Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score has an otherworldly quality about it because it remains purposely spare.  

     Be warned:  this is a hard R because of the intensity of its violence.  However, unlike torture porn, it’s borne out of a righteous fury, rather than entertainment sadism.

I hid my face in Neil's leg a lot of the movie.

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