Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Mario Bello, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
The compelling, morally complex mystery film Prisoners tells a story of child abduction in suburban Pennsylvania. Two families, the Kellers and the Birchs, come together for Thanksgiving lunch and are enjoying a lovely day until they realise that both of their youngest daughters are missing. When their search proves fruitless, the abrasive Detective Loki, a specialist in finding missing persons, is put on the case. However, the kidnapped girls are not the only prisoners the film’s title alludes to. While Detective Loki continues his investigation, Dover Keller takes things into his own hands. In his desperation he abducts an intellectually challenged man who he believes was involved in his daughter’s abduction and knows her whereabouts, and sets about trying to persuade him to speak by any means necessary. It is at this point that Prisoners ventures beyond the realms of a standard abduction mystery movie and becomes a statement on America in the post-9/11, war-on-terror era.
As America continued its search for Osama bin Laden in the latter part of last decade, details started to leak about the extreme persuasion tactics being employed at Abu Ghraib (tactics confronted on screen last year in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty) and American society was struck with a moral question. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it will save lives? In Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski confront that same question but put it on a smaller scale, personalising it. How far is it acceptable to go to get information if you believe it can save your daughter’s life?
It is this central moral question that makes Prisoners so painful and so compelling. Simultaneously we want Keller to stop because he might be wrong, but we want him to keep going because he might be right. What is the worse scenario in his mind: that he be wrong and as a result has tortured an innocent man, or that he be right and miss possibly the only opportunity to save his daughter’s life? As such Keller is at the same time the protagonist of the film and one of its chief antagonists. As we struggle to settle on our moral response to the actions being depicted, we are presented with another possible response by Nancy Birch, the mother of the other missing girl, who upon discovering what Keller is doing tells her husband, “We’re not going to help Keller, but we won’t stop him either. Let him do what he needs to.” Her reaction appears to be Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s indictment of an American administration and society that would turn a blind eye to things it could not stomach so long as the ends justified the means.
The first Hollywood film from French-Canadian director Villeneuve, Prisoners is a well-structured and executed mystery with strong performances from its principal cast, a number of whom are playing against their usual character types. For a savvy audience that is programmed to expect plot twists, Prisoners still manages to surprise you. There are some moments at which you feel like plot and character elements are missing –for example Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki is quite an interesting character in terms of his mannerisms and presentation and you expect a backstory that is never forthcoming to explain why he is the way he is – but the film is none the less a gripping, intense mystery.
Rating – ★★★★
Review by Duncan McLean
Director: Brad Anderson
Starring: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Morris Chestnut, Michael Eklund, Roma Maffia
The Call is a simple thriller with a premise so perfect that it is amazing we haven’t seen it a dozen times before. Halle Berry plays Jordan Turner, a veteran 911 dispatcher in Los Angeles. She fields a call from Casey, a teenage girl who has been kidnapped by an unhinged man at the mall and is locked in the trunk of a moving car. Casey’s phone is disposable and therefore unable to be traced electronically, so it is up to Jordan to try and figure out where she is before the car reaches wherever it is headed.
They call the Los Angeles 911 phone centre ‘the Hive’ because it is always buzzing. The Hive is the hub which connects the many emergencies taking place in Los Angeles at any given moment with the first respondents who are sent to deal with them, and it is a really interesting setting for a thriller. Jordan is a middle-man, and as such the ideal substitute for the audience. Despite being in the middle of this situation and feeling a great deal of responsibility for its outcome, her ability to influence it is limited. Her feeling of helplessness as she hangs on the line as they try and get a trace on the phone is a similar feeling to ours as viewers, forced simply to watch on in horror as the events unfold.
With the exception of a short prologue giving us some backstory on Jordan, the events of the film take place over a period of just a few hours. The clock is always ticking and the tension building. Halle Berry and Abigail Breslin shoulder most of the responsibility of keeping us invested. Breslin, once the little girl from Little Miss Sunshine, is not required to do much more than cry and scream, but effectively embodies the terror of her situation. Berry finds the difficult balance of someone struggling to maintain the control and composure she’s been trained for in the face of an emotionally crippling situation.
Where the film goes off the rails, and ultimately what prevents it from becoming something quite special, is in its final act when we leave the Hive as Jordan takes it upon herself to do some detective work and get involved. This sacrifices what had been quite a unique and effective premise in favour of a much more run-of-the-mill situation and, ultimately, resolution. But that doesn’t change the fact that The Call, while a bit gruesome at times, is short and punchy and filled with tension. While it won’t necessarily rock your world, for people who love a thriller that can have them on the edge of their seat it is an ideal Friday night movie.
Rating – ★★★
Review by Duncan McLean