There have been some solid crime thrillers this year, from Nicolas Cage starrer The Frozen Ground to the slick Brit-flick Welcome to the Punch. However, these pale in comparison to Denis Villeneuve’s epic crime masterpiece Prisoners – an enthralling tale of mystery and retribution directed with a brooding stylish unease that helps ranks it alongside Dirty Harry, The French Connection, and Zodiac as one of the genre’s finest.
Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay centres around two couples – the Dovers (Hugh Jackman & Maria Bello) and the Birchs (Terence Howard & Viola Davis) – whose daughters are kidnapped. Keller Dover (Jackman) soon finds frustration with the results of the police investigation and takes matters into his own hands. However, police Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is sure there is more to the case than meets the eye.
It would have been incredibly easy for Prisoners to slip into Death Wise territory – a series that quickly lost the humanity at its centre in favour of the portrayal of bloodthirsty violent excess. However, Prisoners appeals to a full palette of human emotions – Villeneuve reflects on how we would react to such feelings of loss, guilt, frustration, and retribution if one of our loved ones was taken. This is furthered by several staggeringly realistic performances from Jackman, Howard, Davis, & Bello – each showcasing the film as a human study into the effects of loss. The fact that Prisoners is as fully emotionally stripped back as this is likely to grip most viewers from its very onset.
Guzikowski’s screenplay is chock full of narrative enigmas that further the compelling nature of Prisoners. From labyrinthine symbols to the character of Alex Jones (Paul Dano) – a man with the mental state of a 10 year old who last encountered the girls – audiences will most likely be enthralled trying to connect the pieces of this case just as Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki does. However, the character of Loki can be a frustrating one – there are several occasions when the most obvious of clues slip the Detective by – although, this frustration is likely to further invest and absorb viewers into Villeneuve’s world.
Villeneuve captures a real sense of dread and foreboding with his slow and calculated direction – making the hunt for the missing girls even more emotionally exhausting. From looming camera shots and the eerie silence of Prisoners – as well as Roger Deacon’s cinematography (mostly centred in the night or on grey and rainy winter days) – you can never feel quite at ease. This brooding style results in several moments where the hairs on your arms are likely to stand up in shock, suspense, and plain horror.
Under Villeneuve’s direction Jackman and Gyllenhaal provide the finest performances of their careers. Jackman is a man driven to retribution by grief and pain, yet still showcases a certain darkness and unease – as after all Keller is not above suspicion himself. This is perhaps Jackman’s most raw performance capturing a depth and inner-struggle like no other of his roles have. A sublime turn from Gyllenhaal is likely to further invest us in Prisoners as we see Detective Loki’s become further absorbed by this enigmatic case and risk his own life attempting to solve it. Supporting turns from Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Paul Dano, and Terence Howard showcase the further talent involved in Prisoners – each delivering an utterly pitch perfect performance.
At two-hours and twenty-three minutes, the runtime of Prisoners may look somewhat imposing but this is likely to be one of the fastest cinematic experiences of the year.
Not only a standout of the year, but a standout in the genre, Prisoners is a masterfully gripping and enthralling watch packed with a sense of raw humanity. Villneuve has crafted a modern crime masterpiece.
Certificate: 15 (UK)
Release: 27th September 2013
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gylenhaal, Viola Davis, Terence Howard , Maria Bello, Paul Dano