By KIRBY MCCORD
Most people go to the movies to be entertained. Most films are at least intended to be entertaining. But some have other goals. Roman Polanski’s 1965 film “Repulsion” was designed to be shocking. Michael Haneke’s “Funny Games” was intended to be offensive. “Prisoners,” the current release by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve is calculated to disturb the audience. On that note, it is extremely successful.
On Thanksgiving Day, neighbors get together for dinner. Amid the frivolity, their two 6-year-old daughters wander off. A mad scramble ensues and abduction is assumed; the police begin a frantic search and investigation. A mentally handicapped young man is suspected, but no evidence is found and he is released. One of the fathers then kidnaps the young man, intent on beating the truth out of him before the little girls end up dead. Will they find the girls in time? Who is the criminal?
This tense drama, although a little long at two and a half hours, holds the audience in its vise-like grip. The script, by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) is intricate, but not terribly subtle. The audience squirms uncomfortably for much of the movie as a series of horrific possibilities are realized before its eyes. The story is designed to destroy every semblance of innocence and individual morality that conservative America holds dear. The opening scene shows a prayerful father and son shooting a deer in the woods of Appalachia, referencing the “clinging to their guns and Bibles” stereotype that liberals identify as hypocritical. And then the movie proceeds to demonstrate that hypocrisy, slamming every conservative sacred cow: a self-reliant and deeply religious father becomes a violent vigilante; a drug-addled wife and mother is incapable of functioning, let alone helping her family; a drunken, murderous priest is on the sexual offender list; a middle-class family is helpless and randomly victimized by crazed criminals who seem to be everywhere; and the individual or head of family cannot be depended on for strength or protection and reliance must be placed on the dedicated, paid professional.
Every character in the movie is deeply flawed, adding to the disturbing nature of the crime committed in the movie. Hugh Jackman (“Wolverine”) portrays the out-of-control father with manic intensity; Maria Bello (“Grown Ups”) is his helpless wife, unable to cope. Terrence Howard (“The Butler”) whines indecisively as the simpering neighbor; Viola Davis (“The Help”) demands retribution as the iron-jawed wife who wears the pants in that family. Jake Gyllenhaaal (Source Code”) twitches nervously as brave cop trying to solve a crime but distracted by the violence of the victims’ parents and frustrated by his spineless bureaucratic supervisor. Paul Dano (“Looper”) plays the befuddled mentally handicapped suspect, and Melissa Leo (“Oblivion”) is terrific as his deadpan mother.
While the cast is uniformly excellent, and the suspense builds tremendously, this is one of those movies that is just so pervasively creepy it is hard to enjoy. The camera work and lighting is claustrophobic in style, with gray weather and dreary scenery. This movie is somewhat similar to “The Silence of the Lambs,” with a pervasively sinister atmosphere. Where “Prisoners” falls short is that only the flaws of individuals is displayed — even their strengths become weaknesses. There is no glimmer of hope — even if the girls are found, the society in which they live is so perverse and depraved that their chances for happiness are negligible.
“Prisoners” is well-paced, gripping, dark, suspenseful, and disturbingly violent. If you enjoy this movie, you may be a candidate for psychiatric care. But you won’t be able to take your eyes off it.
1 star — Avoid this boring mess of a movie at all costs. Reading the dictionary is more entertaining.
2 stars — If you're in the right mood or if the subject matter appeals to you, you may like this film; or it is uneven, at times entertaining and believable and at other times sophomoric. If you've got nothing else to do, it may be worth the price of admission (at least a matinee).
3 stars — This is a generally good movie that most people will enjoy. If you're looking for an entertaining couple of hours, spend it here and you won't be disappointed.
4 stars — Don't miss this film! I don't care if you have time or not, make the time, because this movie is terrific.