It could be argued that 2013 was a down year for film offerings, with so many highly-vaunted blockbusters crashing and burning in an epic pile-up of mediocrity, audience disinterest and overinflated predictions, leaving nothing in their collective wake but burning debris and pointing fingers attached to flummoxed studio executives.
(Forensics testing has determined the debris was made up of action-fantasy dialogue, 's Julian Assange wig, and whatever the hell it was was doing in The Lone Ranger.)
Still, the audience onslaught of box office bombs paved the way for some other films to rise to the top, providing some surprising moments at the cinema this year from films you never would have expected to be quite as good as they were. Prisoners, from director , was just such a film, a quietly ambitious work sandwiched amongst the clanging bells-and-whistles of the end of the summer season.
The key to any good film being great is the acting, and the cast in Prisoners was more than up to the task. Outside of his turn in last year's Les Miserables, we have, for far too long, identified solely as the character of Wolverine, and it was nice to be reminded that he has some seriously excellent acting chops. He played the role of Keller Dover with the appropriate amount of rage and grief, and was the catalyst for the difficult questions raised by the movie: How much is too much? When does the 'good' guy cross the line into becoming a monster? Is what Keller did to save his daughter defensible, not just legally, but in terms of his humanity? It was made more poignant for me by the fact that from beard to clothes to occupation to setting (Western Pennsylvania, where I grew up), his character reminded me of my dad so strongly that I found myself rattled, quietly asking myself, If it had been me or one of my sisters abducted, would my dad have done the same...? It was a question I didn't want to look at too closely, because the question that lurked in the edges just beyond that was, And...would I do that myself?
Likewise, was a more than equal complement to Jackman's tortured father. Detective Loki was a strange character, full of twitches and greasy hair and the dry-eyed blinks of the desperately tired. You didn't get a lot of his backstory, but it was just enough to flesh out his character and make you understand some of the things about him, like the cheap tattoos and the relentless drive to protect the town, his hair-trigger, explosive anger.
Detective Loki, like all the other characters in the film, was a fascinating study of contrasts: A calm, keep-it-together exterior that belied incredible internal turmoil and tension. This was a recurring theme of the film: Being able to function normally in society while hiding dark secrets and simmering rage within.
This contrast was underscored beautifully by the understated, bleak beauty of 's cinematography. The movie was set in the last fall/early winter of Western Pennsylvania, an unforgiving time that brings with it freezing rain, sleet, snow, and bitter cold. There were lots of shots of freezing rain ticking off windows, melting droplets of snow reflected in the side-mirrors of cars, and unrelenting bleakness that made you feel the cold in your bones, the desolation. They gray, washed-out tones only served to highlight the mounting tension and grief within the characters. Likewise, the score by Johan Johannson (with a little help from Radiohead) added to the moody, ominous feeling throughout the film, increasing the sense of panic as time ran out. I couldn't help but think of the opening of "The Second Coming" by William Butler Yeats as I watched:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
It wasn't a perfect film by any means. Half police procedural, half psychological study, there was a religious angle, both of faith and the loss of it, that was never fully explored, leaving a considerable missed opportunity. It was a side plot that either needed to be fully explored, or left out entirely; instead, it created a somewhat jarring, unnecessary angle that really did nothing to further the plot. Likewise, anyone with half a thinking brain could have figured out the real abductor well before the actual reveal, so it was a less than revelatory moment.
But the cast was superb, with Jackman and Gyllenhaal leading the way, along with impressive supporting performances from , , , , and a tragic, captivating in a difficult role with limited dialogue. While Prisoners may not have been 2013's best film, for Villeneuve's first attempt at an English language film, it exceeded all my expectations as the film that surprised me the most.
Last year's film: The Avengers - my favorite film of 2012