Saturday, October 26, 2013

Prisoners (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway


Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) hits us with a masterpiece of American Gothic (despite some melodramatic  trimmings) with "Prisoners". This gritty and evocative film as a true crime roman a clef, is as eerie as it is absorbing.

Hugh Jackman is Keller, a religious blue collar man who hunts and prays. He is not a miserable man though it does seem that he has the gray weight of Conyers, Pennsylvania  pressing in upon him. Gone is Hugh Jackman, thespian extraordinaire. This character is riddled in deep lines: a Christian martyr made of wood. This is fitting too as Keller is a carpenter.

During one Thanksgiving, Keller brings his family to dinner across the street hosted by The Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, respectively) The Birches have a young daughter, Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons). The daughters Anna Dover and Joy are inseparable and decide to play outside, attended by an older brother.

Out of the blue, the two girls see a mysterious, yet innocuous enough RV parked outside. On a whim, and perhaps because it looks abandoned, the two girls gambol on its ledges and runners. Some oddly sinister 70s Muzak echoes throughout the vehicle and it becomes clear that somebody is watching within.

This remains the singular most frightening scene of the film, simply because we are plunged in doubt. The mobile home, although non-threatening is unseemly for its grimy off-white coloring.

The children return as the family retreats to dessert and television, then in a snap, they vanish as if taken by an invisible miasma.

Both families are knocked breathless by this unimaginable event.

An odyssey begins.

Paul Dano plays Alex, a perpetually sweating, mute and tormented soul who makes a kind of adolescent Boo Radley. Because Alex drives the RV into the woods, presumably in panic, Keller is convinced that this unfortunate and nearly non-verbal man is the monster. But the police are without hard evidence to hold him.

Keller is frustrated, driven by love for his daughter, rage and a sense of righteous anger. Although we can well fathom Keller's brimming and bottomless boiling, he gradually becomes sadistic. Although Keller is a loving father, he displays his ugliness and is not so sympathetic. He melts into a hardness, consumed by some vengeful internment punishments that are indeed, as bloodcurdling as anything penned by Poe. The revelation of Alex's visage at one point makes Leatherface look like a Raggedy Andy.

Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an enigmatic and somewhat spacey performance as the detective who at first appears reticent and bland, yet  possessed with a preternatural sense of precision. Perhaps Detective Loki was made perfect by  some occult and spiritual loss given the Masonic markings on his hands and neck.

Although each adult character is more unsettling than the last (including a slithering milquetoast by the name of Bob Taylor), the fine actor Melissa Leo nearly steals the show as a shy and ashen auntie. Not since Piper Laurie in "Carrie" has there been a performance so potent in camp, yet so scary.

The hinging and twisting effect works in "Prisoners" because not everything is spelled out at once. One pedestrian thriller turns into a gothic haunt, which in turn transforms into an existential study of punishment and doubt. And a single note may remind many of Alfred Hitchcock who doubtlessly carries on in spirit, not least for this film's splendid and abrupt ending.

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