‘Prisoner’s marks revival of adult drama

by Varun Bhuchar | 11/3/13 3:59pm

When it comes to movies, I have a viewing policy comparable to that of a mountain goat: I consume everything I can. When I go home for breaks, I head on down to the local library and grab films I haven’t seen off its well-stocked shelves. Most of the time, I get clunkers and time-passers, but it’s the rare gems that make my indiscriminate watching habits worthwhile.

One of these was a Canadian film, “Incendies” (2010), about two siblings trying to uncover their dead mother’s secrets. It is a beautifully haunting film that I wanted more of the minute the credits rolled.

Luckily for Denis Villenevue, the director of “Incendies,” Hollywood felt the same way. His first American film, “Prisoners” is another tale of dark morality that is both spell-binding and deeply complex.

“Prisoners” is a parable based on the worst traits of human nature: hubris, revenge, sadness and obsession, as it weaves the tale of Kellen Dover (Hugh Jackman), a down-on-his-luck carpenter who faces every parent’s worst nightmare when his daughter and her friend disappear on Thanksgiving morning.

Frustrated by the lack of progress from the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), Kellen takes matters into his own hands by kidnapping and torturing the main suspect, Alex (Paul Dano).

Even before the first frame was shot, “Prisoners” was destined to be something special. In an era of film history in which we see an increasingly large number of studios relying on well-known intellectual properties, “Prisoners” is a large outlier. It is an original idea, over two and a half hours long, has no clear resolution and in perhaps its worst sin, is rated R, long seen as a major obstacle to any film’s potential commercial success.

With the incredible gift of hindsight, “Prisoners” has been hailed as a return of the adult drama and its box office success has validated this fact.

The interesting thing about this is that those shoes could have been filled by any film in the same vein as “Prisoners,” but the fact that “Prisoners” is actually good is just icing on the cake.

In fact, the reason “Prisoners” is this week’s review is a testament to how important I think it is. It’s uniqueness and relative success are the reason that you are reading a review of a movie that has been in theaters for almost a month. While “Prisoners” probably won’t make my top 10 movies of the year, I can still appreciate its importance in shaking up the cultural zeitgeist.

For starters, “Prisoners” is a different attempt to address the Machiavellian attitude of a post-9/11 America. In Keller, the film gives us an everyman capable of great evil, if only to correct an even greater injustice.

Gyllenhaal’s even less subtle metaphor of a character also struggles with this question, but he is bound by a sense of duty that seemingly betrays him as the hours go by. When he too finally sacrifices his beliefs, it is nothing short of explosive.

The greatest asset of “Prisoners,” however, is its labyrinth screenplay that slowly builds upon plot point after plot point until the atmosphere becomes suffocating. In an industry currently deluged by a glut of cookie-cutter screenplays, most of which turn into rambling messes like this year’s dreadful “Star Trek Into Darkness,” “Prisoners” shows you that you don’t have to save the cat in order to tell an amazing story. Villenevue and Aaron Guzikowski, the writer of the film, show that a good storyteller can weave wonders using raw talent alone.

Supplementing the story are the performances, of which Jackman’s is easily the best. Jackman’s Keller makes his iconic role of Wolverine look like a day in the park compared to the ferocious anger and raw brutality he exudes as a desperate father.

But the greatest triumph of “Prisoners” is how jaw-droppingly gorgeous it looks, and it’s all thanks to Roger Deakins, the greatest cinematographer alive. Usually praised for his works on high concept projects like “Skyfall” or those of his frequent collaborators, the Coen Brothers, Deakins makes every frame of “Prisoners” crackle with inexorable dread and panache.

It is truly astounding how he can make suburban Pennsylvania look like the cavernous manors from “Barry Lyndon,” and it is perhaps the epitome of the craftsmanship that went into this film. “Prisoners” is currently playing at the Nugget.