September 6, 2013



The prevailing atmosphere in Denis Villenueve’s PRISONERS will be familiar to anyone who’s been watching cable TV drama for the past few years.  Gloom, grief, hopelessness, helpless rage–it’s home turf for shows like The Killing, The Bridge, Low Winter Sun, Broadchurch and their brethren.  (The rural Pennsylvania setting of Prisoners has even borrowed the endless raininess of The Killing‘s Seattle.) Where many of those shows have disappointed, ultimately, is by overextending their stories over a full season or even two, and then by not being able to find a satisfying conclusion when they do end. Prisoners, thanks to a superb script by Aaron Guzikowski, doesn’t make either of those mistakes, and the result is a story that, while retaining the psychological and thematic gravity of its TV analogues, is also a corker of a thriller.

The tale begins on Thanksgiving, as two families who are best friends gather for the holiday.  Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are a bit tightly wound (he keeps survival gear in his basement); the Birches, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis), are more mellow.  Each couple has two children, a teen and a little girl.  Before the evening is over, the two girls vanish, and local detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put in charge of the case.  The prime suspect is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a young man with a child’s intelligence whose RV the girls were playing near earlier in the day.

Jones is investigated, but there’s no hard evidence against him–he may just be a lost soul himself, living with his aunt (Melissa Leo).  Keller, though, won’t accept this, and when Loki moves on to other suspects, he takes action hinself, abducting Jones and conducting his own brutal interrogation.

That’s as much as the trailer for Prisoners will tell you, and it would be unfair to reveal what happens from that point on.  Suffice it to say that the script has more than its share of twists and turns, and while it might be stretching a bit to say there are no holes in the story when it’s over, Guzikowski has done a mostly stellar job of making the pieces fit together so that they make both logical and thematic sense.  Keller presents a fascinating study of the complications of vigilantism, and Loki is refreshingly un-Sherlock Holmesian as the cop.  As serious as the movie is, the last half-hour is as exciting as anything we’ve seen on the big screen so far this year.

Prisoners runs a bruising 153 minutes, but it’s constantly gripping.  Villenueve (who directed the Oscar-nominated Incendies) and who remarkably has another film (also with Gyllenhaal) Enemy at Toronto, has never made a Hollywood entertainment before, and he balances the need to push plot forward with characterization very well.  He has the benefit of an ensemble cast that even HBO couldn’t muster: Jackman and Gyllenhaal, in particular, may be more raw and powerful here than they’ve ever been before, and while Prisoners largely belongs to its men, Leo, Davis and Bello all have strong moments.

The film is beautifully put together in every technical sense.  Roger Deakins, one of our great cinematographers, provides enough variety within the overall bleak palette so that the look is never monotonous, and Patrice Vermette’s production design capably handles every kind of setting from suburbia to what can be described as hell on earth.  The editing by Joel Cox and Gary Roach knows when to hurtle the action forward and when to slow down and concentrate on character.  (Not coincidentally, Cox has worked often with Clint Eastwood, and their films together include Mystic River. certainly a forebear of Prisoners.)  Johann Johannsson’s moody score is also of great assistance.

Prisoners is entertaining enough, as well as good enough, that it deserves to find the kind of audience that Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone did in recent years.  It’s a reminder that while the great age of TV drama is upon us, concision and a brisk sense of storytelling can still be virtues of the big screen.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."