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Crossing Over: “PRISONERS” (2013)

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Welcome, FANGORIA Readers, to CROSSING OVER, our newest column that highlights the films, series and content out there outside of horror that is fashioned towards or pays tribute to our beloved genre. By shining a light onto these projects, FANGORIA hopes to open a world of entertainment perfect for fright fans that lies just beyond the borders of the horror community. So without further ado…

As a filmmaker who mainly operates on the fringe of genre territory, there’s little denying that Denis Villeneuve is aware of the horror elements of his films. Whether it’s more explicit, such as the palpable dread and nightmare surrealism of ENEMY, or understated, such as the feeling of pervasive danger and inhumanity in films like SICARIO or POLYTECHNIQUE, Villeneuve understands that the complicated nature of life presents its own unique brand of terror. And from that understanding, Villeneuve explores that horror with graphic starkness, allowing the fear and desperation of the characters in his films to create cinematic monsters in their own right.

Villeneuve’s relationship to the genre is remarkably potent in PRISONERS, a film about loss, justice and closure in the wake of an unthinkable crime. A story that presents truly dark, terrifying turns that transcend the otherwise crime/drama genre in which the film inhabits, PRISONERS invests in tension and atmosphere that feels like a descent into hell on Earth. In that sense, PRISONERS is almost like a boogeyman story, threatening to reveal the face of its monster around every corner only to find seemingly unending darkness in its stead. And to Villeneuve’s credit, our “protagonists” are almost as bad- and definitely more brutal- than the antagonists of the film, and there’s rarely a character at the end of the story without blood on their hands or inhuman acts on their conscience.

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On one hand, however, Villeneuve’s terrifying tale poses a voyeuristic worse-case-scenario to the audience, which makes the depraved acts in the film more unsettling to witness. By blurring the line between good and bad in the name of personal justice, the audience asks themselves throughout PRISONERS if, even as harrowing as this retribution may be, they would do the same or potentially worse if in the same situation. And as the rabbit hole of the subplot following Jake Gyllenhaal’s troubled detective goes into more and more lurid, inexplicable places, the main story goes into vile, horrible places that tear our protagonists apart mentally and emotionally, all the while daring the audience to bare witness.

But on the other hand, perhaps the most chilling aspect of PRISONERS is not what our leads do to solve the mystery at hand, but the fact that it gets results in general. While the police’s investigation does delve into some terrible, blasphemous territory, from which at least two bodies arise, the vigilante approach not only puts a disabled man into excruciating torture but shockingly leads to our “villains” before the authorities, even if said results backfire in the most frightening way imaginable. Nevertheless, PRISONERS’ assault on the viewer’s moral compass is nearly relentless, especially when showing the parallel between the fanatical misanthropy of the antagonists and the soul-dissolving obsession of our protagonists.

As a filmmaker, Villeneuve may not explicitly be in the horror business, but in the way that his non-genre efforts offer agonizing tension that gives pause to the drama at hand, fright fans may find something quite brooding indeed. Furthermore, there’s so little pretense on display, from the ultra-realistic production design to the murky, engulfing cinematography, that it’s difficult to feel as if Villeneuve is exploitative of the film’s heavy subject matter. And by tackling such a complicated, nerve-wracking subject head-on, Villeneuve leaves little to the imagination… but when he does, he certainly makes you wish he didn’t. It’s utterly harrowing, and if that isn’t horror, I’m not entirely sure what is.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley
Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel "THE I IN EVIL", and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.
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