Formula 1 racing is the kind of sport where its athletes actively seek death with each contortion of the track. Fearless, the drivers daringly place more weight on the accelerator when a reasonable human being would step on the brakes. Obviously, crossing the finish line is the outward goal for just about any driver, but the impending doom hiding behind every corner is likely the reason they step on the track at all. After all, what’s more enthralling than accepting death’s invitation, only to slip away from his chilled hands and give him the finger? Unparalleled celebrity and outrunning mortality gives James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth) reason for existing. The adrenaline high he receives from each race, as well as the sexual encounters such imminent danger generates, propels him in life. He lives like he races: with reckless abandon. Acting as a counterpoint to Hunt, and being a natural rival, is Niki Lauda (Daniel Brühl), a man who would never pass as a Hunt carbon copy. Where Hunt is a flashier driver, Lauda is more cerebral. Lauda wants to win, but he does so by fashioning his car in ways other drivers don’t. His instincts and the car’s mechanics are inseparable. The two disparate racers find their rivalry reaching a new level in the 1976 Formula 1 season, where tragedy and desolation spark the ever-growing flame between the two.
For all their fighting, bickering, and destruction, the two men ultimately feed off one another. If the rivalry didn’t exist, each man would likely careen off the track. Both Hemsworth and Brühl give exacting performances of men whose faces are otherwise hidden by speed and helmets. When together, the two actors own a kinetic energy, almost like they’re two lovers who continually push each other away, only to find themselves back in one another’s arms. Brühl is especially spectacular as Lauda; he triumphantly captures the man’s remorseless tact without sacrificing our empathy down the line. It’s no surprise director Ron Howard was able to generate great performances, but what is surprising is his dynamic direction. Howard, who has struggled as of late with his foray into adventure tent poles, seems reinvigorated by capturing this monumental rivalry on film. Never has he been this stylish or confident as a director, sans Apollo 13. From placing the camera on the edges of the track, so we can see blades of grass uprooted by the blazing speed of racers, to the unbridled atmosphere surrounding each race, Ron Howard has stuffed the film with the danger and energy found on racing day. Most importantly, his film convincingly demonstrates the value of having an anti-thesis.
In setting alone, Prisoners is a very bleak film. Taking place in a quaint suburb of Pennsylvania, we’re constantly surrounded by dilapidated buildings and an immutable grey. Whether it’s merely the darkened sky or the eroded, colorless skin of our broken characters, depression hangs on the air like a deep breath in the middle of winter. The broken world becomes more distressing when a cold, calamitous rain occupies the streets for much of the film’s running time. These elements only further prove that the film’s plot, which revolves around the kidnapping of two little girls, is a shiver we simply won’t be able to shake. Our journey into the repulsive act of kidnapping begins innocently enough when the Dover’s, led by patriarch Keller (Hugh Jackman), visit the Birches, one of their neighbors, on Thanksgiving. Everything is warm and fuzzy up until both families discover that their young, precocious girls have disappeared while playing outside. Moments after a hopeful search, a sense of dread overcomes the family, eliciting a panic from everyone involved. Hours later, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a tireless investigator, steps onto the scene. His uncanny work eventually leads to a suspect, the infantile Alex Jones (Paul Dano), and a suspicious RV, but the limits of the law doesn’t allow Loki retention rights to a conspicuous man.
While Loki slowly unravels the mystery, Keller takes vengeance into his own hands and kidnaps Jones, hoping to procure information about his daughter’s whereabouts through aggressive means. It is through Loki and Keller that the film receives its title. Both men are withered and constrained by the law, their convictions, and a haunting past. The investigation into the girls’ disappearance is gut wrenching enough, but watching these two proud men wear themselves thin and decimate their very souls, is absolutely riveting. Hugh Jackman is a force of nature as the desperate father searching for answers, while Gyllenhaal’s dark, sullen performance as Detective Loki is damaging, especially when becomes unhinged as the case goes sour. I’d honestly be surprised if he didn’t receive a Best Supporting Actor nomination for his work here. Matching the tremendous performances is an emotionally taut script that’s masterfully guided by director Denis Villeneuve. Due to Villeneuve’s ability to establish a chilling mood and keep up a suffocating pace, he covers up whatever blemishes the script may have, keeping us guessing until the very end. Frigid, disturbing, and all together spellbinding, Prisoners is the kind of film that leaves you shaken. Once the lights turn back up and the credits roll, you can’t help but ask yourself, “How did I survive that?”