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The opening scenes in kidnapping thrillers frequently lure us into a false sense of security by depicting the everyday routines that will soon be upended. “Prisoners” by Denis Villeneuve does not take that course. A deer is seen calmly snooping around in a wintry forest in the film’s opening frame. The shotgun’s barrel enters the scene. An intoned prayer can be heard. The deer dies with a bang. Hugh Jackman and his adolescent son Dylan Minnette are shown in day-glo hunting gear gazing at their kill through the rows of barren trees as the camera pulls back to reveal them. The father, who comes out as humorless, serious, and a little boring, lectures the son on how to always be ready for the worst in life during the car ride home.
It’s amazing that the movie doesn’t immediately fall apart beneath the weight of this opening’s symbolism. The Coen brothers’ go-to cinematographer, the legendary Roger Deakins, shot the film, which is colorless and saturated with rain. The majority of “Prisoners” is quite ludicrous (despite the fact that it obviously wants to be taken very seriously), and most of the acting has an overblown tone. However, there are some successful aspects of the film.
Independent contractor Keller Dover (Jackman) resides in a suburban area with his wife Grace (Maria Bello) and their two children. He enjoys hunting, Bruce Springsteen, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” collecting cans of food, gas masks, and other survival gear in his basement. The Dovers enjoy Thanksgiving dinner with Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), a nearby family with two children of the same age. The two little girls ask if they can go for a walk while the parents converse and sip wine in the living room. They don’t go back from the walk they take. Panic breaks out, especially as it becomes apparent that the eerie RV that had been spotted earlier in the area has disappeared. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is given the case.
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Alex Jones, the RV’s owner (Paul Dano), is brought in to be questioned. Although Alex seems unusual, forensics claim that the RV is free of tangible evidence. He has a high, whispery voice that makes him sound like a preteen when he speaks. It is not impossible to believe that he could be keeping something from you. This is unmistakably Dover’s perspective, and he and Loki begin to argue over how the investigation should proceed right away. Dover takes matters into his own hands when Jones is released owing to a lack of evidence (and placed in the care of his aunt, Melissa Leo), kidnaps Jones, and holds him hostage in a run-down, abandoned structure. Franklin Birch is included in Dover’s plot to pressure Jones into telling the truth. Although Birch is appalled to see Jones bound to a sink, he defies his own moral code in order to appease Dover’s ferocious certainty. One of the script’s more nuanced themes is how confidence can outweigh doubt with brute force yet uncertainty is frequently necessary to preserve our humanity.
The repetitive huffing, puffing, screaming, and roaring that Hugh Jackman exhibits throughout the movie only serves to highlight the fact that he is a weak man who craves the sensation of strength. In one striking instance, he stumbles over the phrase “as we forgive those who offend against us” while saying the “Our Father.” His family could survive a mustard gas attack as well as the Zombie Apocalypse, and he has a veritable armory in his basement, but he couldn’t protect his daughter on a routine walk through a secure neighborhood. And he is so certain that Alex Jones is the culprit that he is oblivious to all other alternatives. His wife is taking tranquilizers to fall asleep as she lies in bed.
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Gyllenhaal does a fantastic job in this character, which must have seemed quite uninspiring on paper. The script by Aaron Guzikowski, which is so dense with theological allegories that it almost reads like a sermon, excels in its brilliant and fascinating portrayal of Loki. The character is only seen in his opening scene eating Thanksgiving dinner in a deserted, fluorescent-lit Chinese restaurant while the rain pours down outside. We only know that he was reared in foster care and that he lived in a boys’ home. He has numerous tattoos on his knuckles and neck, including a cross on one of his thumbs. His face has a tic. In “Prisoners,” we see a lot of creeps, and you get the impression that Detective Loki may have become one of them had he not chosen to become a police officer. Gyllenhaal gives an excellent portrayal, and his subtlety is appreciated given all the teeth-gnashing that goes on in other performances.
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A few of the scenes from director Villeneuve are genuinely suspenseful. One involves a nocturnal chase through the neighborhood’s back yards following a candlelight vigil for the two girls. A visual metaphor for the idea of humans being walled off from one another, the interiors of the dwellings appear dark and claustrophobic, with walls cutting into the frame and people coming in and out of view. But when the plot picks up speed and we learn about other suspects, underground hideouts, and massive conspiracies, “Prisoners” outstays its welcome.Also, you must try to play this Prisoners quiz.