If you’ve seen a recent trailer for Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners and bemoaned that it seemed to give the entire plot away – a pair of girls are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, and their terrifically angry and upset dads (played by Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) capture and imprison man they think is responsible (Paul Dano, mewling it up), intent on beating him until he breaks – that’s a good thing, because the final product is trip into darkness that makes even extreme vigilantism the least shocking element of its twisted story. A thriller that doesn’t so much come with twists as puzzle pieces that cleverly slide into place across the course of its (incredibly engaging) 146-minute runtime, Prisoners is filled with a near-constant sense of tension and dread. Even the most seemingly benign scenes posses a low level of fear, and the final hour is heavy enough to leave audiences shaking (and shaken).
The basic plot of Prisoners is indeed the one laid bare in its trailers – two sets of families, celebrating Thanksgiving together, discover that their young daughters have gone missing during the afternoon. Panic sets in quickly, and our various parents (Jackman and Maria Bello as one set, Howard and Viola Davis as another) swiftly assume the roles they will play during the duration of the film. Jake Gyllenhaal joins their fold as Detective Loki, a mysterious local cop who has never left a case unsolved, and one who certainly seems to have walked into a piece of luck when a soft-spoken weirdo in an RV (Dano) that the kids played on earlier in the day is found at a local gas station, where he promptly goes nuts and crashes his vehicle into a tree while the local brass stare incredulously. But Dano’s Alex Jones is not our guy, at least that’s what the physical evidence says, and when he’s released back into the world, Jackman’s Keller Dover swiftly tosses him into a prison of his own making.
And this all happens within the film’s first forty-five minutes. Sure, you might think you know what happens in Prisoners thanks to its trailers, but there are more than enough twists and turns to round out its duration in truly startling fashion.
Most of that is thanks to the fact that Villeneuve is working on a few levels here, and a lesser director surely would have made something much more cookie cutter out of Aaron Guzikowski’s script. Prisoners may come with quite a spot-on title and Villeneuve may not be satisfied until all of his characters are trapped in various prisons (some real, some imagined, most self-inflicted), this is not a standard drama about the effects of grief and panic on families. Instead, Prisoners is about people pushed so far beyond breaking points that when they put themselves back together again, they’re scarcely recognizable (and, admittedly, often just horrific). It’s no coincidence that the film often reads as a horror flick – complete with haunted houses, bumps in the night, bogeymen, and buckets of blood – because that’s exactly what it’s meant to be, a horror film about the terrors of modern life.
Performance-wise, Prisoners is entirely the Jake Gyllenhaal show. While Jackman’s Keller Dover is surely meant to be the most complex character to populate Prisoners (well, at least for most of the film), the one kitted out with motives and backstory and grief to spare, it’s Detective Loki who is the most compelling and watchable. Gyllenhaal’s timing and tone are unwavering, making Jackman’s more outsized and nearly-hammy flourishes seem all the more jarring. Supporting stars like Howard, Davis, and Bello are underutilized and given little to do, and all three are essentially unchanged throughout the film. Dano also comes out strong before being boxed in by what Villeneuve is trying to establish with his character, a far more forgivable misstep when it comes to what the film metes out to its very talented cast.
Photographed by Roger Deakins, whose work as a cinematographer long ago became superlative, it’s virtually meaningless to point out how good the film looks (basically, just say “Roger Deakins shot it,” and any film will come with an automatic “looks good” stamp). And yet Deakins’ talents are so essential to the look and feel of Prisoners – a beautiful, powerful, clear, and crisp film that is exponentially all of those things because of Deakins’ contributions to it – that it absolutely can’t go without mention. Combined with Gyllenhaal’s performance and Villeneuve’s inspired directing, the result is an accomplished film that looks, sounds, and moves exactly like what it is – a trip into darkness well worth taking.
The Upside: Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance, Roger Deakins’ cinematography, Johann Johannsson’s score, a highly accomplished and compelling tone, an unrelenting intensity that remains enjoyable and engaging (even at its darkest moments).
The Downside: Underutilization of great supporting stars, Melissa Leo’s aging makeup.
On the Side: Prisoners is just one of two Jake Gyllenhaal-starring Denis Villeneuve films premiering at this year’s TIFF – the other is the pair’s adaption of the Jose Saramago novel “Enemy” and sees Gyllenhaal starring as a man who meets his doppelganger after seeing him on television.