Monday, October 14, 2013

Review: "Prisoners"

Prisoners is a giant step for Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. It is a huge Warner Bros. production that stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Terrence Howard. This comes on the heels of Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated Best Foreign Language Film Incendies (2010). Prisoners premiered at both Telluride and the Toronto International Film Festival in September to glowing reviews. While waiting in line at the Elgin Theatre (one of TIFF's major venues), a huge poster of Prisoners sprawled across the facade of the Eaton Centre on the opposite side of Yonge Street. 2013 could potentially be a great year for Villeneuve if his other TIFF film, Enemy - which also stars Gyllenhaal, finds a release date. I was not sure about Prisoners after seeing the trailer for the first time at the theatre. I dismissed it as another Oscar-baiting film that advertises its Oscar-nominated (or Golden Globe-nominated, Maria Bello!) cast. After reading a few TIFF highlights, I decided Prisoners might be worth a chance. It is a decently woven thriller with a running time (153 minutes) that is at least twenty minutes too long. I was a little disappointed by Hugh Jackman's overacting at times, but Jake Gyllenhaal offers a very textured performance. I just wish Viola Davis and Maria Bello had been given better material to work with as the grieving mothers. Prisoners focuses far too heavily on the trauma and consequences of two fathers and dismisses a brilliant opportunity to look at how the disappearance of two young girls affects the siblings. Very few films really deal with how siblings are affected in these situations and I desperately wanted Dylan Minnette and Zoe Borde to be given a chance to realize their acting talents on screen. Prisoners is a decently made thriller that devolves too quickly into a tale of revenge. Gyllenhaal thankfully balances Jackman's overwrought performance and Prisoners eventually finds success when its entire cast is included.

On Thanksgiving two young girls go missing from a quiet, residential neighbourhood in a small Pennsylvania town. The Dovers, Keller (Jackman) and Grace (Bello), and the Birches, Franklin (Howard) and Nancy (Davis), are distraught at the sudden and shocking disappearance. Very little attention is then giving to their teenage children, Ralph Dover and Eliza Birch. The immediate suspect in the kidnapping is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who is revealed to have the IQ of a ten year old. The case is handled by Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) and Keller believes that Loki is not doing enough to find the two missing girls. Eventually Keller takes the law into his own hands and forces Franklin to become complicit in his actions, however misguided they are.

As more films are released this fall, Prisoners will fall by the wayside. It is a terrifically made film with a script, by Aaron Guzikowski, that falls into the trap of many other thrillers: it focuses too heavily on the grief of one character while creating one-dimensional supporting characters. Maria Bello has no had a role that matched her talent since 2006's Thank You For Smoking. But it was a year before that, in David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, that she had her career-best performance. She deserved more, and the film deserved more, than to have her as a grieving mother subdued by pills. Even Viola Davis, a two-time Academy Award nominee, was given a role that misjudged her talents. Denis Villeneuve has seen success with his films Incendies (2010) and Polytechnique (2009) because he had a hand in the screenplays. The screenplay for Prisoners had so much potential, but the film is both too long and too limited in its scope.

My rating: 2 stars out of 4.

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