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Prisoners (2013): They Just Can’t Kill the Beast

Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)


Jackman and Gyllenhaal dominate a movie poster with a maze as its background.

I had to find the passage back to the place I was before.
photo credit:

I’ll be up front with you: I am writing the first sentences of this review, which I expect will be a very long one, without knowing what rating I will actually be giving Prisoners. I believe that somewhere over the course of the thousands of reviews I have written (Amazon is home to over six thousand of them as of this writing, on October 5, 2013, and I had been reviewing steadily for longer before I started posting there than I have been since I started, so you can do the math…) that has probably happened before…but I can’t remember it, if it has. I have a great deal to mull over before figuring that out, I think. I liked it, overall; there is a great deal to like about it. It is surprisingly well-paced for having come out of a film culture where directors are actively encouraged to make their films about half as long as this one (this is the only film I have seen made in the last fifteen years that is this long that is not either (a) a musical, (b) a Shah Rukh Khan vehicle, or (c ) both of the above), it is unflinching in its examination of violence, its script is intelligent and multi-layered (though it does overplay its hand now and again), it is impeccably-cast, and I could keep going like this all night without really digging into the film at all. But it is not perfect, and while I admit I finished watching it less than an hour and a half before I am writing the opening words of this review, the more I think about the nagging questions I walked out of the theater with, the more they nag at me. Time will tell (and probably will, before I finish writing this review, which will probably be a few weeks from now—if I follow standard operating procedure with it, anyway) if they continue to nag, but the biggest thing that bothered me, and my first impression is that much of this comes from Jake Gyllenhaal being one of the male leads, is that I saw a lot of Zodiac in this movie. I also saw a lot of Snowtown, which is harder to explain away. That made some of what unfolded on the screen before me more predictable than, I think, it should have been; almost certainly more than screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) intended. But we shall see after I keep mulling it over; I’m going to go do some more of that right now.

Detective Loki interrogates Alex in a still from the film.

“One more time…did you or did you not produce Milli Vanilli’s legendary unreleased fourth album?”
photo credit:

Plot: Keller Dover (X-Men‘s Hugh Jackman) and Frankin Burch (Hustle and Flow‘s Terrence Howard) are friends in the suburbs. They get together for Thanksgiving; their daughters go out, saying they’re heading over to the other house to do whatever it is that preteen girls do away form the prying eyes of their parents. They never make it. Suspicion is immediately cast on a broken-down old camper that has been seen in the area; when the police track it down in the dark corner of a convenience store parking lot, they find its driver to be young mentally-challenged Alex Jones (The Good Heart‘s Paul Dano). The police, in the form of one Detective Loki (The Day After Tomorrow‘s Jake Gyllenhaal), interrogate Jones, but do not have enough evidence to go anywhere with it; he is ultimately released, leading Dover to take matters into his own hands. Initially, Burch goes along with Dover’s plan for extracting information, but the longer things go one, the more Dover pulls away not only from Burch, but from the rest of his life. Eventually, people start noticing that Alex has gone missing, and Detective Loki’s focus hones in on Dover.

Loki confronts Dover in a still from the film.

“Go home, Wolverine, you’re drunk.”
photo credit: Awards Daily

And now back to my initial paragraph, which I wrote five months before this one. About 80% of this movie is phenomenal, a thought-provoking journey into the motivations and actions of people who are driven to desperation. The other 20% feels as if it were tacked on for a commercial audience who would not be satisfied with that and needed some sort of conventional mystery to resolve. It’s trite, relies on plot twists you’ve seen in half a hundred other movies of its ilk, and while it is as well-presented as the rest of the movie—these are all fine actors turning in fine performances, Villeneuve (Incendies) certainly knows his way around a camera, and Roger Deakins was nominated for an Oscar for his chilling cinematography (he lost to, of course, Gravity)—it still feels kind of like the old Irving Pichel trick of “hey, we finished shooting a week early and have some extra stock, let’s make another movie!”…except this time they stitched the two together, and the graft didn’t quite take. The straight mystery at the end is watchable, but in juxtaposition to the drama/thriller/horror film that comes before it, it pales. Should you see it? Absolutely. Is it, as IMDB would have us believe as I am writing this in March 2014, one of the 250 best movies ever made (it is sitting at #249)? Not on your life. *** ½



About Robert "Goat" Beveridge

Media critic (amateur, semi-pro, and for one brief shining moment in 2000 pro) since 1986. Guy behind noise/powerelectronics band XTerminal (after many small stints in jazz, rock, and metal bands). Known for being tactless but honest.

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