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The Daily Cardinal Est. 1892
Thursday, June 13, 2024

‘Prisoners’ manages to be an excruciatingly beautiful film

It took me a while to start writing this review. I had to sit in the middle of the floor and hug myself, rocking back and forth and muttering “It was just a movie, I should really relax” over and over. I’m at an ideological stalemate here; I usually only reserve the Mystery Science Theater 3000 mantra for movies that I actively dislike because they’re poorly made. But “Prisoners” isn’t poorly made. It’s actually one of the better films I’ve ever seen. But—and imagine now that I’m tugging at my shirt collar and swallowing nervously—that’s the problem.

What really is beautiful about “Prisoners” is the characters. Hugh Jackman’s paranoid, overprotective, survivalist father figure is a product of some of the most ingenious writing and convincing acting I have seen in a film to date. A tough, middle-class, working man with a basement full of survival rations and ammo and a cross around his neck is a role that is, frankly, impossible; he’s the kind of character with whom everybody in America is familiar, because we’ve all met at least one person like him in our lives.

But Hugh Jackman frowns upon my preconceived notions and bellows me into a corner until I’m a nervous wreck. His performance is flawless, perfectly balancing the desperate outrage and the slow, subtle crumbling as his character, Keller, is taken apart down from the inside out. He’s a true protagonist: neither hero nor villain, but just a very flawed, very relatable, very human man that simply wants to save his daughter. A millimeter off in any direction and this performance (regardless of good writing) would have been just painful to watch. But Jackson makes it genuinely terrifying.

That’s one thing the filmmakers really get; they know exactly how to make you want to scream. The first 15 minutes of screen time is flooded with slow pans, lingering close-ups and the barest hint of a soundtrack. There was so much tension, so much dread from what the camera is leading us to believe, at one point I wanted to walk out of the cinema. I mean it. I wanted to leave, just to escape the horrible, gnawing fear clawing through my chest. But I couldn’t. I needed to know what happened to the people whose lives in which I had been immersed.

There’s this wonderful moment near the start of the film where the two families assemble for a small Thanksgiving dinner. It’s a truly heartwarming moment. Even though my heart was racing like a locomotive, because I just KNEW something horrid was about to happen, I found myself really connecting with these people. Thats the one thing about “Prisoners” that makes it such a brilliant film. It doesn’t have “characters”; it has human beings—real people of flesh and blood that are torn from their happy little lives and thrust into a world of grief and helplessness that can only lead to self-destruction, moral breakdown and the desperate actions of men and women stretched to their absolute limits and then some. “Prisoners” is a movie about what people really become when they are broken down to their truest selves. The result is an eerie, monochromatic painting that is simultaneously spell-binding and repulsive.

And here’s the part where I tell you why I didn’t like it. Perhaps I should clarify though: It isn’t that I disliked it as a film. Personally, I think it is an elegant masterpiece that captures true humanity and brutally deconstructs the romantic ideals on which its major characters are clearly based. In a film like “Taken,” Keller would have been the wrathful, omnicompetent father wolf, and his basement full of gear would have become the tools of his vengeance in the final act. The movie eschews such stupidity and shows us images cultivated from the real world, where the detectives are average, the murderers are human and the parents have pathetic, emotional breakdowns when their children disappear. If you’re a parent, this film will realize some of your darkest nightmares.

But my mistake was going in to “Prisoners” without understanding what I was getting myself into. I’m not sure how to justify accusing a film’s brilliance of being the source of its problems, but perhaps I can soften the blow by owning it. FOR ME, “Prisoners” was a bleak and distressing trip down Depression Drive. Remember how a bunch of people were saying that “The Dark Knight” was so depressing when it was first released? “Prisoners” makes it look like Happy-Rainbow-Funtimesville. It certainly isn’t in the same league as Darren Aronofsky’s signature despondent gloom, but it will force you to face truths that no human is ever comfortable acknowledging. For that, I reluctantly commend it.

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