This weekend sees the unofficial start of the quality-driven fall movie season. (Yeah, technically it began a few weeks ago, but would you want "Riddick" to kick off anything with the word quality in it?) The smart pop entertainment Formula One movie "Rush" hits theaters in limited release, and the elevated genre pic "Prisoners" opens on several thousand screens around the country.
Denis Villeneuve’s film is a twisty tale of narrative surprise. The basics: When Hugh Jackman's daughter is kidnapped on Thanksgiving Day, he takes hostage the man he thinks did it when a hot shot cop (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't seem to solve the case. It's also a meditation on the necessity and limits of violence.
No fun to give away key plot points, so we won't, but the movie deals with weighty issues and has a fascinating back story. Here are a half-dozen things worth knowing on your way in or on your way out.
Childsnatching. The movie wasn't written with the Ariel Castro case in mind -- that had yet to come to light -- or with any specific incidents from the headlines. But screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski was certainly aware of the real-life tragedies. As he told the Los Angeles Times: “I wasn’t inspired by anything in the news, and then as I wrote it, I’d hear about these cases and it seemed oddly reminiscent of what I was doing." He added: "I think if I was more aware of it, it would have kept me from going there. The more you try to take something from the news and put it in your film, the more it can seem like fantasy.”
The other “Prisoners." A beloved Hollywood script for more than four years, "Prisoners" could well have turned into a different movie with very different personalities. At one point, Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale were attached to play dad and cop, respectively. Leonardo Dicaprio also once contemplated starring. And for a little while, Bryan Singer was going to direct it. Try to imagine what that would look like as you’re walking out of the theater.
Paul Dano. He might get tired of playing the terse creep, but we don’t get tired of seeing him. How did he come up with the character of Alex Jones, chief suspect in the Thanksgiving Day abduction? With plenty of preparation and improvisation. At one point he and Gyllenhaal even freestyled a 20-minute take of their interrogation scene. “It was a much darker journey than I imagined,” Dano said.
The unlikely marriage. What happens if you take arthouse and commercial filmmaking and mash them together? Hollywood doesn't often get a chance to ask that question, but it does with this movie. “Prisoners” is directed by Villeneuve, previously known for hard-hitting foreign-language Oscar nominee “Incendies.” But it’s financed and produced by Alcon Entertainment, the normally commercial filmmaking company known for “The Blind Side” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.” “We wanted to do something that was a commercial thriller but also had a great filmmaker and script,” Alcon’s Andrew Kosove said.
Going to the Jake. Gyllenhaal’s been getting darker and weirder in his recent roles. He does so here with a mixture of swagger and controlled rage. He also has a conspicuous blinking tic. That flourish wasn’t in the script: He came up with it and persuaded Villeneuve to run with it. “I remember meeting Denis at a diner in New York before we shot the movie and I said: ‘I think the character has some physical tic or attribute,’” Gyllenhaal said. “And I could see his reaction,” the actor recalled, laughing as he puts his hands up in front of him and rolling his eyes in the manner of Villeneuve. “Directors can have a sense of terror when you suggest something like that.”
Enter the darkness. If the movie takes you to some difficult places, you’re not alone. Villeneuve said he too felt haunted by the material. “How come I’m so attracted to things that are so violent?” Villeneuve asked in an interview. “But I can’t help it. It’s a strong attraction to things I’m afraid of. I’m not sure why that is.”