By Shane M. Dallmann
I recently happened across a review of PRISONERS by David Denby in the New Yorker… it’s not surprising that the review was positive, but I was personally irked by a gratuitous parenthetical crack he made near the end. It read: “Horror-film fans will not like this picture; some of it is actually horrifying.”
Well, Denby may well know his movies, but he obviously doesn’t know much (if anything) about horror fans; invoking the stereotype that says all they care about is “fun” gore and splatter as he does. I would suggest that horror fans are more than capable of telling the difference between PRISONERS and SAW and HOSTEL. For that matter, they know the difference between SAW and HOSTEL themselves; and the more experienced of their number might also wish to invoke an obscurity from 1972 known variously as REVENGE, TERROR FROM UNDER THE HOUSE and INN OF THE FRIGHTENED PEOPLE, in which James Booth, Joan Collins, et al abduct the man they hold responsible for their daughter’s murder after the police let him go. The premise is almost identical to that of PRISONERS, but Denis Villenueve’s new film is completely its own animal, fear not. Better yet, prepare to fear.
Two families in Pennsylvania (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello and children as the Dovers; Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and children as the Birches) are enjoying a Thanksgiving get-together when the youngest daughter of each family simultaneously vanishes. The strangely-named Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) almost immediately apprehends the all-too-obvious prime suspect; a mentally challenged young man named Alex (Paul Dano). But with absolutely no physical evidence to be found, the police have no choice but to release Alex, much to the rage and frustration of father Keller Dover, who happens to be a professional building contractor with access to abandoned property; and to whom Alex made it quite clear that he knows more than he’s willing to say out loud…
We all know where this is going, but PRISONERS continues to surprise and, yes, horrify, throughout. There’s hideous brutality dished out to a victim who may well be completely innocent; family members who would have wanted nothing to do with such activities are brought in against their will, and what chance at salvation does the apparently devoutly religious Keller have no matter how things turn out? He’s not going to get away with anything, and he knows it, even as he refuses to believe that Loki is actually doing anything about the situation. Loki, of course, is actually working overtime to solve the case, but he, too, may be hindered by his own rage and frustration (he also feels extra pressure because he was introduced as the detective who’s solved EVERY case he’s ever been assigned).
I was about to agree with Denby insofar as admitting that PRISONERS was certainly not a traditional “horror” film, but some truly unexpected shocks, the palpable dread that builds with each new discovery that has to be looked at (a collection of locked bins makes the audience gasp in horror before a single one is even opened) and plenty of aberrant psychology make this a legitimate nail-biter in addition to being an emotionally wrenching human drama. I could cross-check several other excellent shockers to which PRISONERS pays homage, but that might inadvertently lead to spoiler territory.
Oh, and the ending? Sheer perfection. PRISONERS is a completely satisfying thriller on all levels, and yes, horror fans, you’re going to appreciate it no matter what they say in New York.