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It’s rare to find a film that really works on all levels, but that’s exactly what Denis Villeneuve’s has constructed with Prisoners. Armed with blistering performances, an enthralling mystery, and some stunning filmmaking, the high-tension kidnapping thriller opens Oscar season with a bang.
The story begins as two families, the Dovers (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Dylan Minnette, and Erin Gerasimovich) and the Birches (Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Zoe Borde and Kyla Drew Simmons), get ready to sit down for Thanksgiving only to be struck by tragedy when the youngest daughters of both clans go missing. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who has never let a case go unsolved, is called in and works diligently to solve the crime, immediately bringing in a suspect named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whose RV was spotted near the location where the girls went missing. But as days go by without results and Jones is eventually released from custody, Keller (Jackman), the Dover family patriarch, decides that he can no longer stand by and wait for Loki to get results, and takes the law into his own hands.
Written by Aaron Guzikowski, Prisoners’ script is excellent not just because of the twists and turns of the plot but also because of the invisible mechanics of the screenplay. The two-handed story follows both Keller and Loki on their radically diffenret missions to find out what happened to the missing girls, and the film glides back in forth between the two arcs beautifully. The mystery itself is captivating from the very start, the plot ramping up fast from the opening and completely overcoming the daunting two-and-a-half hour runtime.
Given two true powerhouse characters, Gyllenhaal and Jackman put on some of the best performances we’ve seen in either one’s career, anchoring the film’s story and making sure that the audience cares just as much about the missing girls as the characters do. From the moment he is introduced, eating Thanksgiving dinner alone in a Chinese restaurant, Loki is a captivating character. As a skilled detective, he's thrilling to watch as he moves through the evidence to solve the case, but Gyllenhaal also takes him on a hardcore emotional journey that is brilliant accented with an intensifying facial quirk that gets more and more severe as he travels further down the rabbit hole.
But if Gyllenhaal is a pair of tweezers delicately working to pull back the layers of the case, Jackman is a 20-pound sledgehammer filled to the brim with raw emotion, fire and pure id. Playing a grieving father makes it easy to sympathize with Keller off the bat, but the blinding rage that the actor expresses helps push the character in fascinating directions. As the story continues, half of you understands his passion and where that passion has led, while the other half wonders if he may not be film’s true villain. It’s a fascinating arc, and one made powerful and real by Jackman’s performance.
Despite its impressively stacked cast, Prisoners isn’t an ensemble film, but that doesn’t stop the supporting players from being fantastic and contributing to the movie in a major way. As the film’s first and prime suspect, Dano constantly throws off every guess the audience has about the story’s twists and turns and brilliantly plays the role with a perfect mix of extreme creepiness and child-like simplicity. Davis and Howard go through similar tragedies as the Dovers, and have a much different kind of arc, but both still deliver compelling, heart-wrenching performances. Of the main cast Bello gets the short stick, her character dealing with with the trauma by turning to prescription pills and hours and hours of sleep, but when she gets her spotlight moments she shines.
As though it’s not enough to have a terrific mystery and host some absolutely astounding performances, it’s all brought to life with gorgeous direction and cinematography. The film is littered with slow, creeping tracking shots that lend incredible atmosphere and suspense to the story, while Villeneuve makes perfect use of intense Pennsylvania winter weather (faked in Georgia, believe it or not), using rain and snow to add both extreme tension and peaceful serenity to scenes. Few cinematographers can do what Roger Deakins can, and here he is operating at full throttle, making pure art out of a bruised, beaten and bloodshot eyeball staring through the only hole to the outside world in a dark torture pit. The contrast between the beautiful aesthetic and the dark, gritty story is stunning.
The movie plays with many themes over the course of its story, including the morality of what one would do to protect their own, the validity of torture, religion, and the many meanings of its simple title, and it all comes together to create a film that is part deep-thinking, hard hitting thriller and part pulpy mystery. A great deal of Prisoners is hard to watch due to its heavy and graphic content, but thanks to Villeneuve’s direction, Deakins camerawork, and Gyllenhaal and Jackman’s performances it’s even harder to look away.