By Zack Mandell
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a God-fearing family man from Small Town, U.S.A. who believes in hard work and preparing for disaster. His basement is full of canned goods and vaguely militaristic equipment that is the hallmark of the doomsday “preppers” who are all over the reality television landscape. While some may view him as paranoid, he sees himself as being prepared, but he is smart enough to hide his prepping ways from most. His family, which includes his wife Grace (Maria Bello), teen son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), and youngest child Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), seems like any other family from his tight-knit community.
That community includes neighbors Nancy (Viola Davis) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), whose young daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) is good friends with Anna. On Thanksgiving, the two families meet together at the Birch house to share the meal and think nothing of it when Anna and Joy disappear to go play. It’s a quiet, semi-rural community where people lock their doors, even though they really feel they don’t have to. When it’s time for dessert and the girls aren’t back yet, the parents begin to worry. After searching high and low for them, one of the parents remembered that the girls had been trying to climb the dilapidated van of town weirdo Alex Jones (Paul Dano) earlier that day. Alex sometimes lives in the van and had been suspiciously parked near the Birch’s house all day. Though this is enough to make him guilty in the eyes of the parents, the cop assigned to the case, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), has to follow the law. The law says there is no evidence tying Alex to the situation, especially since the girls are only missing and there is no official crime-yet.
Keller is absolutely certain that Alex has the girls, so he confronts and kidnaps the man, whose only ally in the entire town is his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), who insists he couldn’t have done it. Despite her confidence that Alex is innocent, an irrational and terrified Keller lies to Grace about his whereabouts and leaves the house to kidnap Alex with the hopes of scaring him to confess. When he doesn’t confess, Keller becomes angry and out of control, resorting to torture. It is a set of horrifying scenes, as the father’s animalistic nature causes him to become increasingly erratic, putting the life of a possibly innocent man in jeopardy. Jackman has played some fairly dramatic roles over the years, but “Prisoners” is easily the most intense movie he has been a part of. It also showcases one of his the best performances, eclipsing his role as Wolverine, his various romantic comedy roles, and even his stage work. That’s not to say that those roles weren’t all great, because Jackman is a very good actor. But his turn as Keller is just better, a personal high in a career full of highs.
Gyllenhaal, who looks much older than his thirty-two years in this film, also does a phenomenal job. Loki is a man who has nothing but his work, which is why he has a perfect arrest record. His ego is just big enough to make him search harder for the girls, as he doesn’t want a blemish on his perfect record. As the hours and days tick by, he finds himself increasingly handcuffed by the law, which seems to be on the side of the accused more than the victims. Though he might want to secretly do what Keller is doing in taking the law into his own hands, he knows he can’t do that and still build a case against whoever is guilty. Gyllenhaal is all steady measures and contained emotions, in stark contrast to Jackman’s unhinged, volatile father. They are two opposite sides of the same coin, and they play off each other in a dramatic, beautiful way.
The cinematography is also beautiful, as Roger Deakins does a great job of turning the cold, bleak background of rural Pennsylvania into another character in the film. As the temperature begins to dip and the rain starts to come, the vigilant townspeople know the chance of the girls being found alive is dwindling. It’s a cold, harsh reality that feels right at home in this bleak, tension-filled film. “Prisoners” may be dark, but it is the rare dark film that can also paradoxically make viewers feel much more alive by the end of it. It’s the final trick in a movie full of twists and surprises that is both highly entertaining and a punch to the gut at the same time.
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