Jake Gyllenhaal Is Haunted and Haunting in 'Prisoners'

That no order might be found might seem a cosmic sort of punchline, but Prisoners doesn't press you to worry or to rethink assumptions.


Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Soul, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons
Rated: R
Studio: Warner Bros.
Year: 2013
US date: 2013-09-20 (General release)
UK date: 2013-09-27 (General release)

"It's embarrassing, all this fuss." Grace (Maria Bello) turns away from Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), suggesting -- hoping -- that "all this fuss" will lead to a wholly unexpected ending. Loki peers at her, trying not to, wondering if she really means she believes that her six-year-old Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and her friend Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) have run away, and that they're not abducted, as everyone else -- himself included -- has assumed.

When Grace begins to cry, Loki has his answer, sort of. The girls are taken, not wandered off, and it's his job to find them. Apparently, in Prisoners, it's his job alone, for in the grim Pennsylvania town where he and Grace live, she with her rough-hewn, mostly decent-seeming husband Keller (Hugh Jackman) and he with… you'll never know. Loki is at once the film's central cypher and moral beacon, deeply dedicated and also damaged (he lets on how and why later during the film's over-explanatory proceedings). He has no home life that you see, only work, which consists of being the sole cop assigned to the missing girls case.

This means he hunts, discovers, and interrogates suspects, venturing into dark nights and darker basements alone, his flashlight held high, illuminating narrow shafts of hallways and sometimes, sharp planes of faces. The horrors that Loki finds are sometimes upsetting but also mundane, as when Grace weeps or Keller explodes, and sometimes ghastly and weird, as when he comes on a collection of bloody children's clothes packed in boxes with snakes, or the specter of a desiccated dad man tied to a chair, apparently for years.

No matter what he sees, though, Loki maintains something like a fixed expression, and when it's not so fixed, its shifting is slow. As an observer, and even as an interrogator, Loki is strangely enthralling, tattooed and awkward, introduced as he eats Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant. Where Keller tends to histrionics, a survivalist and recovering alcoholic enraged to feel helpless ("You made me feel safe," accuses Grace, "You told us you could protect us from everything"), Loki stands back, at the edge of a frame or in a doorway, his white shirt buttoned to the top and probably too tight. His seeming discomfort doesn't put anyone at ease; the parents -- including Joy's dad and mom, Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) -- look at him with questions in their eyes, and his perfectly puffy-faced captain (Wayne Duvall), doesn't ask very many, as Loki has solved every case he's been assigned.

Loki doesn't flash this record so much as he assumes it. He means to solve every case, and he makes promises accordingly, even when you know he can't keep them. When his captain releases a suspect, the stereotypically pasty manchild Alex Jones (Paul Dano), without maintaining surveillance of him, Loki is flat-out angry, not even a little inclined to defer to authority. "I need to know where everybody is," he decalres, and his boss nods, sheepish over his mistake. You know he does, as he's essentially you here, the film's ideal viewer, who knows or intuits just enough to make you not believe what you think you're seeing, but instead to trust him.

Loki's job is to know. Someone knows the whereabouts of the missing girls, and he must find out whom. Loki's investigation takes him to the sorts of places you might expect, isolated houses and abandoned apartment buildings, on rainy nights and bleak mornings. Here, however, knowing takes different forms. Where Loki is skeptical and painstaking, frustrated but knows too that frustration can give way to solution. Keller, by contrast, is all hotheaded fury. When the cops release the miserably inarticulate, RV-driving suspect Alex (whom the police describe as having the IQ of Keller presumes his guilt -- "I know he knows, I can see it in his eyes" -- and then he also becomes guilty, taking and torturing Alex.

Keller's monstrosity produces prolonged moments of doubt and dismay, for him and for you. If his war-on-terroristic response may be comprehensible, it also remains utterly reprehensible (as well as finally, weirdly, nearly justified by the revelation). Prisoners does make the case that abuse produces abuse, that monsters are not only born, but shaped. Adult monsters were once children, traumatized by the very figures -- institutions and individuals -- who might have been supposed to protect or at least salvage them. The film devises a community of abusers and victims, intimately interrelated, never disentangled, children changed by adults, adults turned into children, all prisoners of their pasts and their fears, and most especially, of their determination to change their futures.

The trouble with Prisoners is a familiar one. Too much like Mystic River, as well as Gone Baby Gone and Ransom or even Taken and The Lovely Bones, its primary moral questions have to do with faulty individual decisions, usually fathers and cops who make mistakes and so, rather than fixing or protecting any given situation, instead initiate cascades of dread and cruelty. As vigilantes and victims seek redress or at least some sense of order. That no order might be found might seem a cosmic sort of punchline, but the movie doesn't press you to worry or to rethink assumptions. You can feel horror at the snakes and the bloody socks and the distress of older siblings left to watch their parents dissolving into abjection. But you don't have to worry about your part in the process, your responsibility for those missing and hurt but also those who are hurt in front of you.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.