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Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” is a Tense Thriller Guided By Strong Performances

September 23, 2013

By John Corrado

Prisoners PosterAfter premiering at TIFF and being voted the second runner up for the coveted BlackBerry People’s Choice Award at the festival, Prisoners opened in first place at the box office over the weekend with a respectable $21.4 million.

Receiving a passionate response in many circles and provoking a stirring conversation, this is a disturbing and memorable film that has clearly struck a chord with audiences and could easily be talked about throughout awards season.

Things take a tragic turn after Keller (Hugh Jackman) and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) go to visit their friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) for Thanksgiving, when their daughters Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) mysteriously disappear.  The determined detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is immediately on the case, but with only days to find them, Keller takes things into his own hands and kidnaps a possible suspect, the developmentally delayed Alex (Paul Dano) and tortures him for information.

But this drastic act of vigilanteism gives way to an even deeper mystery, and as the level of disturbing intrigue builds throughout the story, shocking realizations and fascinating religious overtones come to the forefront.  The English language debut of Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is a tense and incredibly well crafted kidnapping thriller filled with twists, all of which are remarkably pulled off with a steady hand.  The director received an Oscar nomination for the Middle Eastern drama Incendies, but where that was a well made film weakened by a melodramatic twist in the last act, Prisoners is a powerhouse thriller that maintains an even tone throughout.

The film is guided by strong performances.  With an increasingly pained expression on his face, Hugh Jackman delivers a towering portrayal of a troubled father, perfectly displaying every emotion of this conflicted character.  From the first time we see him eating Thanksgiving dinner alone at a local Chinese restaurant to his nervous blinking that increases throughout, Jake Gyllenhaal delivers an equally strong performance that keeps us genuinely intrigued watching this almost obsessive detective struggle to solve an increasingly hopeless case.  This is a performance that ranks alongside his excellent work in End of Watch, a police thriller from last year that I appreciate even more every time I revisit it.

The opening scene of Prisoners immediately sets the tone for the film, as Keller takes his teenaged son (Dylan Minnette) hunting, his voiceover dutifully reciting the Lord’s Prayer as they take aim and shoot a lone deer.  I think this is meant to show that for him violence is justifiable as a way to survive, and prayer is an atonement for these actions.  His motto is “pray for the best, prepare for the worst,” a saying that is repeated not only to justify his survivalist mentality, but also the torture he inflicts to try and find justice in a situation sorely lacking in righteousness.

This uncompromising approach is what makes Prisoners work so well, as the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski increasingly pushes the characters and the audience over the edge.  What makes the film so fascinating for a studio production is the way that the screenplay is written purely in shades of grey, rather than the black and white sense of right and wrong that we instinctively want to imbue upon this situation.  There are no easy answers while watching the film, just brilliantly allegorical questions of what we would do or allow to happen in a similar situation.

These hues of grey carry over into the striking cinematography from Roger Deakins, as the Pennsylvania rain and snow provides an appropriately bleak backdrop to the situation, framing the characters as prisoners of the elements.  From the way that we follow a mysterious RV throughout the early scenes to the foreboding long shots that frame the houses against the chilling fall landscape, the camerawork is masterful throughout every scene.  Every frame perfectly advances the compelling sense of tension, while adding to the deeper meaning and metaphors that become apparent while watching the film.

The title of Prisoners has multiple meanings.  Not only are the characters prisoners of each other, but also prisoners of their anxiety and fear, emotions that push them over the edge, trying their morals and putting their faith to the test.  The audience is held equally captive as we try to figure out this mystery alongside the characters, leading up to a brilliant final scene that continues to haunt us long after the credits roll, just like how those involved will never truly recover from these events.

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