With Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve has created the year’s most purely suspenseful and grim film and emerges as a powerful storyteller, who gets caught retracing his steps one too many times, but still manages to pack an emotional megaton to the gut and hearts and souls of his audience.
Prisoners is hardly a perfect film; it runs a tad long and a couple of its characters gradually (and sometimes for dramatic purposes, suddenly) fall to the wayside to Hugh Jackman‘s Keller Dover and Jake Gyllenhaal‘s Detective Loki (I swear to God, that’s his name), but the film just looks so damn brilliant (more on that later) and its script and performances demand your attention at all times.
On a cold Thanksgiving day, two families (Jackman and Maria Bello & Terrance Howard and Viola Davis) get together to celebrate the autumn holiday. When their respective young daughters suddenly go missing after dinner while playing outside, the two families’ lives are spun into an oblivion of panic, despair, spiritual conflict and moral ambiguity.
Villeneuve does his best David Fincher impersonation in segments of Prisoners (the film’s narrative structure is quite similar to Fincher’s Zodiac), but that similarity comes off less as imitation than it does admiration. Some of Prisoner‘s most thrilling moments are also its most frustrating. Like Zodiac, Villeneuve has the confidence to not give us answers right away (or sometimes ever) and it allows the film to work on many dimensions, often simultaneously. Literally dozens of different scenarios and questions will come into your head while Dover questions the man who he thinks has the answers to his daughter’s disappearance (Paul Dano, in a very understated performance).
We are constantly asking whether or not this man is making the right choices in the now for his and his family’s future (whether or not his daughter is in that future or not). For all the things Dover resorts to doing in the film, Jackman portrays this desperate man with a raw emotion that the actor has rarely exhibited on screen before. Some of his best moments are gut-wrenching and deeply heartfelt.
Forget Les Misérables, Prisoners is Hugh Jackman’s best film and the Australian actor’s best performance to date.
And while Jackman is allowed free reign to give out a bombastic and scene stealing performance, it’s Gyllenhaal who is the real star of Prisoners. He plays a dedicated and obsessive man who operates with a quiet confidence that absolutely commands the screen and those around him. In the film’s rather bloated run time, Gyllenhaal has a surprisingly small amount of dialogue, but conveys so much through his eyes, hands and face. This ordeal and its many frustrations are taking just as large a toll on him as they are Dover, but he rarely succumbs to the physical emotions that Dover continually (and entertainingly) resorts to.
Gyllenhaal’s is a stoic performance that, in a perfect world, will get some notice come the end of the year and Award season.
And while those two actors and their performances and the story as a whole feel complete, some parts of Prisoners fall a bit short of hitting a home run.
Bello, Howard and Davis are almost completely lifted away from the film’s central thread. Bello in particular is granted almost nothing to work with. Her grieving mother is certainly a believable role, but the character literally spends the heavy majority of her screen time bedridden and doing next to nothing to move the plot forward. And after Howard is used as a device for contradict Dover for his actions, he disappears almost completely from the film. Other characters also undergo this disappearing act that feels a bit contrived and a bit too convenient on the drive home, but these gripes are really very small.
The bulk of Aaron Guzikowski‘ screenplay is tight (despite that long running time) and appropriately dark, brooding and exhausting (in a good way, trust me). Its final act could’ve been just that little bit stronger had it stuck to its guns and delivered an ending worthy of a film carrying this tone. It ends with a bow a little too neatly wrapped on its head, but its final shots leave a lasting impression that only reiterates the frustration that had so ingrained itself in the reels before its jarring ending.
Legendary English cinematographer Roger Deakins (No Country for Old Men, Fargo, Skyfall) does a phenomenal job of framing the drama in a way that gives a timelessness to this brutal tale. His use of shadow, blacks, whites and greys provide an uncanny visual representation of both internal and external conflicts within Prisoners.
Prisoners opens rather starkly: a deer walks into the cross heirs of a rifle while the voice of Dover recites the “Our Father” prayer before the animal is gunned down. It is this kind of action that is at the center of Prisoners: “Is it one’s place to kill if what is killed is inhuman?” It’s clear what Dover’s position is, and the film time and time again asks us if we can support or leave this man in the dark for whatever sins he’s executed. But it also asks what the consequences of those actions are and those terms aren’t presented in clear black and white.
Prisoners never takes the easy way out. And for that, it deserves to be hailed as one of the year’s very best films.
Final Verdict: 4.5/5