Thursday, May 29, 2014

Jake Gyllenhaal Shines in Thought-Provoking "Prisoners"

Jake Gyllenhaal brings the intensity in Prisoners.
Although commercials made it seem like a variation on the Taken formula, Prisoners is actually a pretty serious drama with a lot on its mind.

In general, it occupies the same playground as Gone Baby, Gone, another pulpy and thought-provoking crime thriller about an investigator’s dogged pursuit to solve a child abduction case. But there’s also a strong political thread that recalls Zero Dark Thirty in the way it forces viewers to consider the value of torture.

The film revolves around the reactions of two sets of parents (Hugh Jackman and Mario Bello and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when their little girls are abducted by an unknown villain. When a mentally unstable suspect (Paul Dano) emerges and the cops aren’t able to find suitable evidence to charge him, the Jackman character takes measures into his own hands. Each parent responds to his actions in a different way, serving as analogs for the differing ways people respond to the use of torture tactics.

To say much more about the plot would ruin the film, but I will say that it’s beautifully lensed by Roger Deakins and that, although quite long, it’s well paced and grippingly directed by director Denis Villeneuve. The film also closes with a perfect denouement, which is a rarity in movies and another way in which it echoes both Gone Baby, Gone and Zero Dark Thirty.

Jackman is great as the desperate dad driven to extreme measures, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop on the case who steals the movie. Although his Detective Loki handles many of his early encounters with a practiced calm, there’s a coiled-spring intensity to him that’s emphasized by his twitchiness and constant blinking. This is a man with a past (there’s all those tattoos and one scene implies he’s the product of an abusive childhood), and while he’s instantly sympathetic, there’s an unsettling sense that the guy could just go off at any moment.

Loki is a great character, and like J.J. Gittes in Chinatown or Patrick Kensie in Gone Baby, Gone (I know, I keep bringing up that movie, but it’s so good), he’s a detective you want to see tackle other cases in other movies. That’s unlikely to happen, but there’s no denying that Gyllenhaal, often cast for gentle quirkiness, is a total revelation in the role. Even being a fan of his previous work, I wasn’t really prepared for what he brings to the table here. It’s easily a top five performances from 2013 in my book, even if it didn’t get treated that way during awards season.

There’s a high level of melodrama on display and the film has the type of circumstantial “everything fits together” web that often plagues crime dramas. For those reasons, not to mention its dark subject matter and general dreariness, Prisoners isn’t for everyone. However, I found it to be one of the better films from last year. Ultimately, the character work, ace tech aspects and thematic and tonal strengths of the movie outweigh any negatives. A-