I almost never go to see movies. There are several reasons for this, and more or less in order of descending importance they are:
—I have zero interest in moronic movies driven by special effects
—I have zero interest in moronic movies driven by violence
—I have zero interest in moronic movies made for the thirteen-to-seventeen adolescent demographic, which is to say driven by violence and special effects
—I have zero interest in moronic movies intended for the vast, non-English-speaking demographic of foreign lands, which—by definition—means movies that are driven by special effects, violence, and geared to a thirteen to seventeen demographic (those being the movies that don’t need a lot of fancy subtitles)
—I have zero interest in driving an hour and a quarter to see any movie, and our little theater up here in the mountains doesn’t get many movies that I do wish to see.
So what with one thing and another, I rarely go out to see movies. But the other day, feeling exceptionally claustrophobic, and encouraged by a wife who was also feeling claustrophobic, we drove into town to see Prisoners, starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, and Viola Davis, directed by Denis Villeneuve, and written by Aaron Guzikowski. The premise of the movie can be summed up in the terse question, “How far would you go to protect your family?”
Prisoners does for middleclass suburban, semi-rural Pennsylvania what Psycho did for motel showers. Much of it takes place in the kind of perfectly standard suburb we’re all familiar with, where all the houses bear a strong resemblance to each other, all are well-maintained, and all of them radiate a sense of home and safety and families gathered around the kitchen table, a neighborhood where children can ride their bikes back and forth to visit their friends. You know, the kind of peaceful neighborhood where the elderly man across the street who walks his Bichon Frisé every morning and who loves to gossip actually has seventeen dead bodies on display in his basement, and the cookie-baking grandmother two houses down is an intermediary who sells vital American military secrets to the Chinese government. That kind of neighborhood. Your kind of neighborhood. A typical American neighborhood. The kind of neighborhood where Hugh Jackman’s little girl and his best friend’s little girl both go missing on Thanksgiving Day. Missing as in vanished.
Denis Villeneuve, who appears to be best known for his short films, has clearly been frittering away his time when he should have been directing thrillers like Prisoners. He takes his time, and uses a deft touch to set things up at a leisurely pace, never resorting to obvious sound effects or musical tricks or cheap visual shocks (bloody hands reaching in suddenly from off-screen, that kind of nonsense) letting the panic caused by a missing child build naturally, organically, and using the foul winter weather of Pennsylvania bring its own sense of menace and despair. The very natural result of his fine sense of timing is that the viewers’ panic matches that of the parents. Hugh Jackman, and Mario Bello as his wife, along with Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the other parents, are all fine actors with lengthy résumés. You expect good performances from them and you get excellent. Ditto with Jake Gyllenhaal as a somewhat counter-culture detective trying to balance terrified and angry parents, suspects who may or may not be suspects and may or may not be retarded, commanding officers who are as retarded as all commanding officers, and his own sanity. Ditto with Melissa Leo, who was so brilliant and completely different in The Fighter, and who delivers another breathtaking performance here. (Hint: I am a writer; I choose my words carefully.)
Aaron Guzikowski’s script is so excellent and his characters so well-drawn that you don’t really care that there are procedural holes in the police work you could drive an eighteen-wheeler through. Guzikowski, like Villeneuve, has an excellent sense of timing and clearly has productively channeled his need for psychiatric treatment into his work, but he also asks some interesting moral questions, both of his characters and of the viewers.
But the big surprise, for me at least, was the work of Paul Dano and David Dastmalchian. The great advantage to not going to many movies is that when I do, and I see work of that quality, there is always that moment, sitting in the dark, when I wonder if somebody really hired these guys, or if they just got permission to take them out of the maximum security psych-ward of the local penitentiary.
If you plan to move to middleclass suburban, semi-rural central Pennsylvania, I would recommend you pass on this movie; it will make you want to live someplace, anyplace, else.