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Take no Prisoners'

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Prisoners Prisoners

Quality direction, performances elevate thriller

The best films are the ones that provoke reactions long after you've seen them. There are few things in the pop cultural world as rewarding as a movie that prompts you to ask yourself the big questions - questions about your own basic nature, about how what we do defines who we are.

'Prisoners' is one of those movies; it holds up a mirror and asks us if we're really so different from what we're seeing before us. It's the sort of movie that, for better or worse, stays with us long after the credits roll. 

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, 'The Wolverine') is a building contractor living in small-town Pennsylvania with his wife Grace (Maria Bello, 'Grown Ups 2') and their kids Ralph (Dylan Minnette, TV's 'Awake') and Anna (Erin Girasimovich in her feature debut). The Dover family goes down the street to have Thanksgiving dinner with their neighbors the Birches Franklin (Terence Howard, 'The Butler') and Nancy (Viola Davis, 'Beautiful Creatures'), along with their daughters Eliza (Zoe Borde, TV's 'Reed Between the Lines') and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons in her feature debut).

But when Eliza and Joy go missing, both families are overwhelmed with panic, terror and anger. The police are called in; lead investigator Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, 'End of Watch') has never failed to solve a case. A suspect is brought in a developmentally disabled man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano, 'Looper') but there is insufficient evidence to hold him.

Keller Dover has no such doubts about Jones's guilt. His frustrations and fears regarding his missing daughter grow into desperate rage; his anger toward the seeming futility of the police investigation leads him to start down a dark path. With time being of the essence, Keller feels as if he has no choice but to take the law into his own hands. The only question is how far he will allow himself to go.

There's an overwhelming grayness to 'Prisoners' that permeates the entire film. From the subdued colors to the late autumn setting to the constant rain, the viewer never escapes that feeling of foreboding bleakness. It's an enthralling visual representation of the film's tone; such evocation of emotion through a film's look is relatively rare, but director Denis Villeneuve has worked wonders with an intentionally limited palette.

As you might expect with an all-star cast such as this one, the performances are outstanding across the board we might even see a few nominations come awards season. Jackman is outstanding as the father at the end of his rope, so desperate to save his child that he's willing to sacrifice anything and everything to get her back, up to and including his own humanity. Gyllenhaal presents Detective Loki as a man driven by the pursuit of justice, no matter how difficult that pursuit might be. Howard, Davis and Bello are each possessed of unique and significant talents. And Dano's is an absolutely hypnotic performance; there's a sad complexity to his portrayal of Alex Jones that is inescapable and serves to anchor the entire film.

The tale unfolds with a leisure that is frustrating at times, albeit in the best possible way. The film's runtime of nearly two and a half hours feels simultaneously eternal and instantaneous; the tension builds steadily, with each all-too-brief moment of release fully earned. There's an agony in the events that unfold that is presented with subtle dignity.

'Prisoners' is a difficult film to rate in a traditional sense. It is a compelling and intricate story that is well-told from all sides. Villeneuve's direction is outstanding, Aaron Guzikowski's screenplay is taut and thrilling and the performances are exceptional across the board. But a mere 'good' or even 'great' does it no justice. This is a gut-punch of a film, a powerful work that manages to be as evocative and unsettling as any major studio release you'll see this year.

What really sets 'Prisoners' apart, however, are the questions that you'll likely find yourself asking in the hours (and even days) after you've seen it.

[5 out of 5] 

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