Director Denis Villeneuve and actor Jake Gyllenhaal are on a roll. They recently debuted terrific psychological doppelganger thriller “Enemy” at the Toronto International Film Festival (review here), but first to hit theaters is their second collaboration, “Prisoners." Also playing Toronto, and making a "surprise" screening appearance at Telluride, if this dark, intense and engrossing drama is any indication of what’s to come, it bodes very well for future collaborations.
What lengths will you go to to protect your loved ones? What boundaries will you cross? These are the questions raised in Villeneuve’s fifth feature, a brooding, visceral and emotionally bruising examination of trauma, loss, sin and deliverance. On a cold and wet Thanksgiving evening in the suburbs of Pennsylvania, Keller Dover (Jackman), a loving father, hunter and be-prepared-at-all-times survivalist, and his wife (Maria Bello) have the Birches (Viola Davis, Terrence Howard) over for their annual turkey dinner. Laughs and good times are had, but in the blink of an eye, their evening goes amiss.
Suddenly, the couples’ children, who went off to play next door, are missing and nowhere to be found. As the families comb the neighborhood, collected concern grows into alarm, trembles into panic and then erupts into a fever pitch of all-out terror and desperation. One small lead, a junkheap RV seen near the scene of the would-be abduction, proves fruitful. A singularly determined loner cop, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrives on the scene where he finds a panicked suspect who tries, unsuccessfully, to flee. The suspect is Alex Frost (Paul Dano), a mentally impaired invalid who swears he knows nothing of the crime, and it’s even unclear whether he understands what’s going on.
Released after 48 hours back into the arms of his concerned aunt (Melissa Leo) due to lack of evidence, Dover’s impatience, fear and frustration begins to clash with the authorities’ inability to charge the young man. His escalating worry for his daughter's life—knowing the longer they wait, the less of a chance she has—soon takes a violent turn. And then a morally disturbing and brutal form of torture and vigilantism takes hold, from which the father can never return. Far from the feel-good movie of the year, “Prisoners” is dark, disturbing, white-knuckle stuff with an unnerving shade of dread blanketed over almost every frame. Every parent’s worst nightmare, “Prisoners” connects thanks to some masterclass filmmaking in suspense, terror and intrigue. Watching the emotional toll the abductions take on the families, law enforcement and community around them is particularly brutal and affecting.
Already boasting a Foreign-Language Oscar nomination for “Incendies” and a string of strong independent features, Villeneuve continues to prove his deeply confident footing in modern day cinema, bringing intelligence and muscular and mannered nuance to a somber and extremely tense studio drama that doesn’t deign to ever spell things out (the ending is probably the most bold studio finale we’ve seen in ages and seemed to even puzzle some). His precision and control over tone, pitch and mood—much of which is gripping and portentous—is immaculate. Villeneuve knows where to place a camera for maximum effect, and when the camera chooses to move it often produces chills. The director also knows how to create an unrelenting tight tension that quivers with rapt emotion. Symbols quietly burn on the edges of alarmingly foreboding compositions, and one particular oh-so-subtle and simple camera push-in is breathlessly haunting and masterful. Top-flight above-the-liners support Villeneuve in his deeply concentrated and meticulous aims, but Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins ("True Grit," "Skyfall") steals the show with some breathtakingly layered compositions and the disquieting atmospheres he drapes around the picture.
Jackman roars with a Wolverine-like rage and intensity in frustration at the ineffectuality of the police working his daughter’s case, but there’s an authentic, emotionally connected and anguished howl to his pain that he could never access with Logan. Like “Incendies” before it, “Prisoners” is emotionally draining as the family, the detectives and everyone involved is put through the wringer, but it’s an all-consuming ride that’s ultimately compelling, if not slightly exhausting. While Jackman is more than genuine as the father driven to the ends of his frayed tether to find his daughter—and a few particular scenes with his son are heartbreakingly emotional—it’s Gyllenhaal as the in-his-world, indefatigable detective that takes over as the heart of movie in the end with an impassioned but controlled tenacity that never asks to be applauded as heroic.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski, his script topped the Black List in 2009, and was all the rage that year, with names like Bryan Singer, Mark Wahlberg, Leonardo DiCaprio and more attached in various incarnations. And it’s easy to see why. But while taut and riveting, one of film’s minor issues is that it has so much ground to cover on the page that it threatens to unravel the movie. For its first hour and a half, “Prisoners” is top-notch, but credulity strains slightly when the labyrinthine twists of the film’s third act become a little knotty. But a rousing, heart-stopping finish plus the intensity of the material wins out in the end.
At two and a half hours, “Prisoners” is grueling and also slightly saggy at the two-thirds mark, but credit Villeneuve for knowing when to relax and then tighten the vice along the way. While some second act crime conceits deter some of the film’s momentum, it’s also crucial to the layers of this complex thriller (and personally, it’s difficult to say where one would begin if they had to shave scenes off this movie). “Prisoners” navigates tricky two-hander POV issues too. While it’s ostensibly a movie about the lengths a man will go to protect his family, the drama actually ends up seamlessly passing the baton to the resolute and emotionally invested detective who vows to solve the case and bring the families’ daughters home alive. The movie also quietly foreshadows much of this transition along the way so the hand-off isn’t jarring.
Featuring a terrific supporting cast, everyone brings their A-Game, but Bello as the destroyed mother and Davis as the matriarch who puts her faith in Dover, are especially strong. “Prisoners” is difficult, wrenching subject matter, and it will be interesting to see how audiences (and Oscar voters for that matter) respond. The picture is often graphic and pulls no punches in its disturbing violence, but its unflinching nature gives it a memorable sear that won't soon be forgotten. A first-rate thriller with a blackened bite, “Prisoners” may not be the easiest or most escapist sit for the casual moviegoer, but it’s this kind of filmmaking and storytelling that brings folks like us flocking to the theaters year after year. [B+/A-]
This is a slightly edited reprint of our review from the 2013 Telluride Film Festival.