Every so often a movie comes around that just looks interesting, but you are not prepared for just how stunning it truly is. It just seems like another good thriller that might be nicely satisfying, but this movie is far and beyond such meager expectations. Prisoners attracted me because I really love Hugh Jackman. He has such a genuine depth of humanity and intense screen presence in so much of what he does, but even then, I didn’t expect a performance and a film on this level of masterful brilliance.
How far would you go to protect your family? Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release. As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?
Brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is undoubtedly the best film I have seen all year. A tight, taut, suspenseful and engrossing thriller that hits powerful emotional chords everywhere. If you thought the trailers gave too much away, you are very mistaken. There is so much more substance and plot nuances that a trailer could never accurately convey. Surely, I will not spoil anything for you, but the mystery of this film is cunningly devised with intelligent turns and a remarkable progression. There are many fine layers of character, emotion, and story here that interweave perfectly and beautifully. We are treated to so many well fleshed out characters inhabiting a story of very intense emotions and radical, unsettling violent actions with nerve racking consequences. You feel every ounce of emotion from these characters, and Villeneuve’s direction shines gloriously in every detail. I also love that nothing in this film is a red herring. Every lead, every piece of evidence, every detail adds to the puzzle which is brilliantly plotted out from a stunningly well written screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski. Prisoners is meticulously mapped out every step of the way, and Villeneuve utilizes all of that emotion and strategic, deliberate pacing to absorb you into the movie.
The cinematographer for this film was Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall which was immaculate work, and he does not falter here at all. I was constantly struck by the quality of the compositions as they all hold so much weight. Villeneuve has this shot and edited in a very conservative manner so that the substance of every frame soaks into the viewer so deeply. Early on, I love how fairly brief scenes are played out in wide masters to give you a dramatic and stoic impact on the story. The inspired cinematography constantly envelopes the screen translating the dramatic power of Villeneuve’s cinematic narrative in such exquisite detail and poignancy. The quality of the visuals, how the film is shot, and the style of editing constantly made me feel like this was a very 1970’s thriller with a modern polish. Even the Earth toned color palette reflects that, and the autumn / winter setting adds to the grim, somber atmosphere. Every technical quality of this movie is used to suck you into the depth of what transpires. Even the score is immensely effective, yet subtle. Everything just works with such precision to excellent effect.
I honestly believe that Hugh Jackman could possibly earn himself some accolades come awards season time. My faith in his talent has been paid off time and again, and I love seeing him in these gritty, hard hitting dramatic films. Keller Dover is a man who believes in preparing for the worst while praying for the best, and so, he is used to doing everything possible to protect his family from all dangers. When he feels he must take matters into his own hands, the emotional intensity of the film escalates drastically. Jackman is intensely powerful in this role pushing himself to that extra level that separates great from extraordinary. Pure, raw emotion pours out of him as Keller Dover struggles with doing the right thing for his daughter even though it is the worst, most unimaginable thing he’s ever done. The absolute conviction of what he believes he must do penetrates right through the screen right into your soul. This film constantly pushes this character into further emotionally and morally strained situations that challenge Jackman to deliver on higher and higher levels which he exceeds over and over again. This is why I love Hugh Jackman and why I was drawn to seeing this movie. He’s an incredibly relatable and engaging acting talent who pulls you in based on his depth of humanity, and that is gorgeously on display here in a masterfully crafted film.
Now, I haven’t seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything since Donnie Darko, and it’s great seeing him in a mature, hard edge role. He is really solid as this vehemently dedicated cop who maintains a level head while remaining fully committed to this case. I love seeing how Detective Loki handles the strained, heated emotions of the Dovers and Birches, and how he manages everything with meticulous perceptiveness and a dogged mentality. It’s a wonderfully written character that empathizes with these hurting people and conveys his confidence with sincerity. Gyllenhaal is intensely compelling and intriguing to watch as the film progresses. From the moment he’s introduced, eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, he is complex and unique. I like the nuances added into his character such as the various small tattoos on his hands and neck. They give him a darker, grittier edge along with Gyllenhaal’s sort of dark aura. Yet, he is not a dark character, but is a riveting one that adds his own intensity to the narrative. This is also a marvelous performance that only becomes more fascinating and gripping at the film progresses.
The rest of the cast is equally as powerful. Mario Bello’s character of Grace Dover deals with this frightening tragedy of her abducted daughter by falling apart, relying on medication, and just becoming a mess. It’s a pure visceral deterioration of a person torn apart by fear and pain for a loved one. Terrence Howard is another actor I just love, and he delivers such vulnerability. The struggle Franklin Birch faces when Keller pulls him into the abduction and torture of Alex Jones is a perfectly human conflict. He wants his daughter back so badly, but almost can’t reconcile the morality of what he and Keller are doing to this man with the IQ of a ten year old. The dynamics between all of these characters and their passionate, pained emotions is magnificent to behold. Even Paul Dano makes you empathize so deeply for Alex. You are never certain whether he is responsible for anything at all, or that Keller is torturing a completely innocent man. The story twists around so beautifully wrapping everyone up in this complex tapestry that any truth is possible. Even more so, nothing is all that clean cut for any suspect, and no one is completely innocent. Everyone has something shameful, shady, or tragic which shows that these are real, textured, flawed people. Every character is written and performed with such substance and rawness that you can never take anything for granted or predict where this story will lead you.
I was constantly pleased with the sophistication of storytelling here. There were times I was a tad apprehensive that the pay-off of the mystery, or that the identity of the abductor would be spoiled too soon. Instead, it was another element of the puzzle being laid out carefully with surprising, unexpected, yet entirely purposeful turns. As I said, nothing is a swerve. You’re not lead down a frivolous path to a false lead. Everything introduced in this story is there for a substantial reason. The ultimate reveal is great allowing for everything to really fall into place, and put certain characters into further, tenser jeopardy. I loved how the final act unfolds. There’s real danger at hand, and nothing proceeds remotely like a cliché. This is a fresh, smart thriller that will captivate your attention for its entire 146 minute runtime. One would think that a deliberately paced thriller with that kind of runtime would lag somewhere or feel drawn out, but Prisoners makes amazingly solid use of every minute of screentime to progress every element of story and character to its ultimate, immensely satisfying and brilliant conclusion.
Denis Villeneuve has just come out of nowhere for me, and now, he has my undivided attention. Prisoners is absolutely perfect. There is not a single aspect of it for me to criticize, only praise. This is an incredible cast delivering amazingly powerful and raw performances in a rattling and haunting thriller. I have never stated in a review of a newly released movie that it is the best one I have seen all year because you never know what else could surprise you in the remainder of that year. However, I cannot imagine what else is possibly going to steal away that title from Prisoners because it is that stunningly impressive without a flaw in sight. Do yourself a great favor and see this movie and support it. I hope you are as enthralled with it as I was.
Unlike many, I wasn’t anticipating this film for a long time. It was only when I saw the trailer before Transformers: Dark of the Moon that I became interested and excited for it. It seemed like a very original film in style and concept populated by a fine cast, and helmed by a proven director in Jon Favreau (Iron Man). The film does have merit with some fine performances and entertainment value. However, I was disappointed that the concept was not realized to its fullest extent.
In 1873, Arizona Territory, a mysterious loner (Daniel Craig) wakes up in the middle of the desert with no memory of who he is, where he came from, or how the high tech device got latched onto his forearm. After dispatching of some ill meaning folk, he proceeds to the small town of Absolution where is tended to by a local preacher, but soon makes trouble for the unruly Percy Dolarhyde (Paul Dano). Things go further awry when the local law enforcement recognize him as Jake Lonergan, a wanted criminal. Percy’s rich cattleman father, Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), comes to collect his son, and Jake for stealing his gold. However, the stand-off is cut short when the town is mysteriously attacked by alien flying crafts. The device on Lonergan’s forearm starts beeping and flashing. The ships abduct various townspeople, but not before the device helps Lonergan blast one out of the sky. This sets Dolarhyde, Lonergan, and several other townsfolk on a mission to recover their lost loved ones. Taking a particular interest in Jake is Ella (Olivia Wilde), who has some secrets of her own that she needs Lonergan’s help in resolving. They all set out on this adventure of danger together for different reasons, but towards the very same goal.
The positives of this film start with Daniel Craig. He has great presence like the western anti-heroes of old who doesn’t need to speak much to impact a scene. Lonergan is a man of action, and those actions speak quite clearly for him. Of course, he is also intelligent and cunning, but not without a dash of charm and compassion. Craig is a perfect lead handling all that befalls his character with perfect reactions, and acting like a hero you can take stock in. Another highlight is Clancy Brown appearing as Meacham, the town’s preacher. The character has a very refreshing philosophy on his religion. Things such as you have to earn God’s presence. You have to make the effort to do good deeds, to improve yourself before he’ll grace you with good fortune. Meacham seems to believe God is more of a guiding force that helps you along the journey instead of laying it out for you to walk without question.
Harrison Ford stars here as a former Colonel named Dolarhyde who pretty much runs things around these parts. Ford’s had an amazing career playing so many versatile roles, but I have not seen him in anything much since The Fugitive. Here, Ford is crusty, hardened, and mean-spirited. To a certain point, that works for the character, but Ford barely deviates from that characterization to show us what the script is trying to do with the ex-Colonel. In concept, Dolarhyde is meant to win over an audience by showing that he’s not as bad of a man as we think, it’s just history and circumstances that have jaded him. That’s the intention, but Ford’s performance doesn’t show that depth. He speaks the words, but there’s no variation of emotion when he does to convey a sense of a dimensional character. He just exists in the film. Ford handles the action of the piece well with guns, horses, and so forth.
Olivia Wilde is about what you expect from her. It’s no breakout performance, and it might not be everything that it should be. However, it’s not bad. Things in the film tend to range from mediocre to great. Of course, too much languishes on the lower end of that spectrum. Wilde services the role decently enough making for an all right female lead, but next to Craig, she falters. His is such a strong character and performance that she doesn’t stand out as well as him. The character has a nice arc, and secrets of her own to reveal. However, like much in this film, it’s played too safe.
The supporting cast is a little mixed. Walton Goggins is his always entertaining and memorable self as a member of Lonergan’s former band of thieves. Paul Dano is very entertaining and a nice fit for the immature, unruly, and troublemaking Percy Dolarhyde. He’s mostly a comic foil to contrast Craig’s harder edged character in their few scenes together, and plays it perfectly. However, Adam Beach comes off far too flatly. It’s clear that, by the end, we’re supposed to have some emotional resonance with the character, but there’s nothing within Beach’s performance to grasp onto. He seems like a plain supporting cast member. Attempts are made throughout the film to have him bond with Ford’s Dolarhyde character, but as I said, Ford doesn’t give much to help his character be anything of anything. Sam Rockwell portrays the local bartender who has tried to make a new beginning for him and his wife here, but faces trouble every step of the way. He’s a man facing circumstances he doesn’t have the courage or confidence to overcome. To me, he seemed like the guy that gets dragged along on the journey even though he has nothing to contribute. So, they slap some clichéd story arc on him of a man that’s never handled a weapon, never fired a gun, and finally comes through at the end to save someone’s life by firing a shot. It’s terribly by the numbers.
As I said, the premise and concepts of Cowboys & Aliens should’ve been pushed further for a more fantastical experience, but that never happens. I just felt like everything was held back. That they had a fertile idea here that never went beyond the basics of cowboys clashing with aliens. While meshing western and science fiction genres is not a new thing, I have not seen this particular premise played out before. The closest would be Joss Whedon’s Firefly, which married the two concepts well in a futuristic setting. It meshed the ideals and themes of a western into a futuristic science fiction setting, and maybe that’s where the strength of the idea lies. Aliens abducting people from old west towns seemed cool at the beginning of the film, but the premise falters a little when you find out why the aliens are even here at all. It was ridiculous to me that all they wanted was to mine for one natural resource because it’s valuable to them. It’s not like it’s a fuel they need to power their machines, or a precious resource they need to sustain their species. They just want it because it has monetary value. That comes off as a very weak idea that someone thought up in two seconds, and never decided to evolve further. The aliens create their own problems by coming out and abducting people. Had they just stayed hidden in the mountains, no one would have ever known they were around. Had they been discovered, and were almost fighting back in defense of themselves, that would be something. Unfortunately, the aliens just come off as foolish through and through. Their motives and methods really have no rationale or logic behind them. Humans posed no threat to them until they unnecessarily revealed their presence, and started abducting them for the sole purpose of the learning the weaknesses of a enemy that knew nothing of their existence.
I’m also rather tired of the personality deprived alien concept. Predator got it right by making the alien silent, but also having it demonstrate a great deal of character and personality. That is birthed mainly from having the right person inside the suit along with someone brilliant like Stan Winston behind the design of it. CGI has robbed us of a performer’s nuanced quality when it comes to creatures like this. One comes off no different than another, and that is just from a lack of creativity. They are just creatures designed to fill up the plot, and serve as a physical enemy to combat.
The visual effects are about mid-grade. They are generally okay, but they won’t win any awards. They service the story, and that’s about it. They are better in some instances than others, depending on the setting and what the effect actually is, but yeah, there’s not much to really say about them all. They definitely could be far better to improve the overall quality of the film, but that’s hardly the only shortcoming of this movie.
Another thing that I felt kept the film from reaching its full potential is a lack of atmosphere with the visuals. The sound design and score are really solid. I love the meshing of musical styles in the score, and I think that achieved more than the film itself did in combining western and sci-fi themes. However, with the marketing campaign as it was, showcasing a lot of colorful, shadowy, and moody visuals, I had hoped there would be more of it than we got. Those such scenes are handled excellently. They are lit and shot in a very effective way as something conceptually evocative of Ridley Scott’s Alien. However, much of the film unfolds in broad daylight scenes which offer no stylized vibe to them. Yes, it suits the western side of things fine, but again, if this is a meshing of genres, the lines should be blurred between them. It should be that the two styles mix to create something unique and consistent instead of switching from one look and tone to another as it shifts from the western plot elements to science fiction ones. The film is rarely ever both a western and a science fiction film. It’s either a western, or it’s a science fiction movie. It doesn’t really deliver on the potential of the premise by meshing them both together in smart, clever ways. Generally, this is a film where style and substance should have reigned in abundance, and they skimped on both.
Favreau does handle the action scenes very well. They are compelling sequences filled with suspense, tension, and excitement. The initial nighttime abduction scene is stellar all around with the sharp visuals, beautiful colors, and exciting tone. Later, when everyone is hiding in a ravaged and upside down river boat, and a lone alien comes stalking, all is handled with style and horror movie level tension. Favreau’s skill in this matter does help build up the intimidation level with the aliens. I only wish they did make them more than just monsters to fight.
Again, Cowboys & Aliens has its bright points with Craig in the lead role, and a few of the supporting roles. Now, the movie doesn’t become outright bad. It’s just underdeveloped by the filmmakers, or underplayed by certain actors. What felt like it should have been a rather memorable and remarkable genre-bending film really never takes off at any point. Nothing is delivered on to its fullest extent, and the ending feels a little short on emotional impact for the characters. It is an enjoyable and generally entertaining film that is worth some of your time, but expectations need to be wrangled back before watching it.