Tuesday, September 24, 2013

"Prisoners" taps into dark side of parental instincts


Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello

How far would you go to protect your children? No, really: ask yourself this if you have kids, especially young ones. Even if you, like me, are not a parent, you may have observed how having a child in danger can inspire the most astounding, practically superhuman feats of will, as well as the most spectacular meltdowns. “Prisoners” runs the full gamut in playing out every parent’s worst nightmare, the disappearance of one’s children, and I suspect most parents who can bring themselves to watch will do so with horror but also a glimmer of empathy, perhaps even self-recognition.

The rest of us may find such empathy more difficult, especially when it comes to the behavior of the film’s lead, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman, shorn of his usual charm). When Keller’s young daughter goes mysteriously missing along with the daughter of his neighbors (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), the latter react more or less as normal parents would be expected to react, exhibiting extreme grief and fear but also some degree of control. The Dovers…not so much. Keller’s wife (Maria Bello) quickly slips into a medically induced fog to dull her pain, while Keller, convinced he knows who kidnapped the girls and frustrated with the perceived inaction of the detective on the case (an excellent Jake Gyllenhaal), proceeds to take matters into his own hands.

No, this isn’t “Taken,” and Keller’s no vigilante hero; director Denis Villeneuve, who’s no stranger to stomach-churning violence and moral gut-punches (see his Oscar-nominated “Incendies”), never implies that what he does to the man he believes responsible (Paul Dano) is remotely justified even if the latter is guilty. The brutality of Keller’s tactics speaks for itself, although the film works more by suggestion than by direct depiction. But Villeneuve also shows how the agony of not knowing the worst, not having an answer to the most important puzzle of one’s life, and the obsession that results, can grind up one’s soul—not just Keller’s or the other parents’, but also that of the detective (curiously named Loki). In this, “Prisoners” is reminiscent of David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” not least because of Gyllenhaal’s presence as a man consumed with solving what may be an unsolvable mystery. Only this time he’s the seasoned cop rather than the eager reporter; and this time, after a few baroque plot twists, he does solve the case. He doesn’t, however, solve the larger question that the film leaves conspicuously open: what are the just deserts of a man who becomes a monster in trying to save his child from a monster? It’s a question that most parents can only hope they’ll never have to answer.



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