I’d heard good things about Prisoners, the first American English language film made by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve. Hyperbole swept aside, general consensus was that it was an genuinely thrilling thriller containing great performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. As a mental fan of both, I knew I couldn’t pass up on this one.
Basic story follows the preposterously named Keller Dover (Jackman). When his daughter and her friend go missing on Thanksgiving, Dover turns to Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) to help. Prime suspect is creepy unsavoury type Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who is hauled in for questioning. Turns out Jones has the IQ of a 10 year old, so the police can’t get much out of him. With his wife shutting down due to trauma and aware that he’s running out of time to find the girls alive, Dover takes matters into his own hands.
Here’s the thing, Prisoners builds atmosphere like no other. It grabs you by the throat with a sense of creeping dread and doesn’t let go. The film isn’t in any kind of rush to answer your various questions (as the 153 minute runtime may suggest) so you’re left uncomfortable and desperate for a painfully long time- exactly how you should be. This may be the best thing I’ve seen Jackman in. He nails the mentality of a despairing father and you feel for him. He’s seriously intense at times. I hope to see more of this sort of stuff from him in between slashing at things with his adamantium claws. Dover is a complex character who makes morally questionable choices that will certainly not be to everyone’s tastes, but you understand why he does what he does without necessarily agreeing with his actions. Gyllenhaal also puts in a top-level performance. Loki is a haunted man. Sure, he’s the standard obsessive cop character, but the script keeps a careful rein on his motivations and when coupled with Gyllenhaal’s detached yet involved take it feels fresh. Paul Dano is predictably brilliant and Maria Bello, Terrence Howard and Melissa Leo all do stellar work.
Prisoners is a damn good twisty-turny mystery film. It’s meticulously written to only reveal its secrets exactly when it needs to. It’s the sort of film that’s five steps ahead of you at all times. Just when you think you’ve amassed all the clues, another one comes along to laugh in your face and giggle whilst you go back to the drawing board, cursing its name under your breath. That’s part of the fun though. Well, I say “fun”. This ain’t an episode of Jonathan Creek. It’s one of the bleakest films I’ve seen in recent memory and I can see it getting too much for some people, especially with the constant ominous feel to it all. It’s also beautifully shot, with Roger Deakins (he of No Country For Old Men, Shawshank Redemption and Skyfall fame) framing some absolutely gorgeous, but intentionally grimy and empty stuff.
The film is very close to being completely brilliant. I can appreciate the film’s intentionally slow pacing, but I felt it could have done with a trim here and there. Nothing major though. The one big problem with it all is that the wheels start to fall off towards the end. After being so methodical with its pace and plotting, it feels like the ending is rushed, especially when we have glorified Scooby-Doo villain style monologues dumping all the exposition that they couldn’t find space for in the rest of the film. It’s not a filmbreaking flaw, but it does get disappointingly conventional after hours of being so refreshingly smart.
Anyway, Prisoners comes highly recommended. It’s a tough watch, but a rewarding one. Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal give magnetic performances. It’s not exactly a film you’ll put on for a laugh on a Friday night, but it reminds you how absorbing and affecting filmmaking can be.
Drama, crime, thriller
BD/DVD Release Date:
3rd Febraury 2013 (UK)
Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo
Buy Prisoners: [DVD] or [Blu-ray] [Amazon]