In lesser hands, director Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners could have descended into murky grotesquerie of 2010’s The Tortured. The latter saw a grieving husband and wife kidnap and brutalise the serial killer who murdered their young son. It was a gruesome, dismal little film, and unpleasant to sit through for more reasons than its scenes of gore.
Prisoners, meanwhile, deals with a not dissimilar scenario with maturity and restraint. It’s Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania, and two young girls suddenly go missing in the midst of the celebrations. Their families, who were friends before the incident, are distraught – and when a suspect is released from police custody due to a lack of evidence, their distress gives way to outrage.
Hugh Jackman plays one of the fathers who decides to take the law into his own hands, while Paul Dano plays the mentally-disabled young man who becomes his prime suspect. As the father goes to increasingly vicious lengths to extract information from his prisoner, Detective David Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) embarks on his own single-minded crusade to find the children’s whereabouts before it’s too late.
Prisoners is an example of what happens when intelligent writers, filmmakers and actors bring all their talent to bear on a difficult subject matter. Prisoners could have been a manipulative and deeply unpleasant film, but its refusal to revel in the detail of what its characters do – instead leaving the audience to contemplate their cruelty – merely increases its potency.
There’s a dank, grey pall over the entire film, perpetuated by the measured rhythm of Villeneuve’s direction and the stark economy of Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography. The despairing tone’s not unlike the bleaker moments of Silence Of The Lambs, or Channel 4’s stunning Red Riding trilogy, with a slow drip-feed of clues and steadily rising tension – time is running out, and a happy conclusion is by no means a certainty.
It’s a traditional, knotty thriller in many ways, but there’s a sensitivity and artistry on display in Prisoners that makes it more than just a whodunnit – like George Sluizer’s Dutch film, The Vanishing (1988), there’s a macabre, even philosophical mind at work behind the scenes – the nameless Pennsylvania setting becomes a web of secrets and tragedy, and as Detective Loki burrows into its secrets, his discoveries become ever more chilling.
Some critics took issue with Prisoners‘ scenes of torture, arguing that the film could be seen to be condoning them in some way – or that it implies that torture is a legitimate means of extracting information. Yet even a cursory glance at the characters’ growing sense of remorse and exhaustion surely provides its own evidence: guilt brings its own punishment, and living with the consequences of a crime can sometimes be as terrible as the deed itself.
The surety of Prisoners‘ filmmaking is matched by its performances. Jackman puts aside his easy-going movie star persona and digs deep in one of his most riveting roles to date – there’s a desperation in his eyes, and a sense that the disappearance of his daughter has unlocked something dangerous inside him. Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard are low-key and effective in their supporting roles as the other shell-shocked parents, and Aaron Guzikowski’s script is careful to illustrate how each deals with their trauma in their own individual ways.
Then we come to Jake Gyllenhaal, whose performance may be the lynchpin in the film’s success. It’s another hypnotic, magnificent performance, where vital clues to his character’s inner turmoil are illustrated by brief visual clues or a casual line of dialogue rather than in thuddingly obvious plot points. His tattoos and prominent facial tic point to a difficult, perhaps troubled past. He clearly cares deeply about his line of work, yet appears to struggle with expressing empathy towards the victims’ families. His frustration at being unable to solve the case is expressed through his growing obsession and violent outbursts.
The case gets under Detective Loki’s skin, and it arguably gets its hooks into the audience, too. Not everyone will be satisfied with how neatly Prisoners’ mysteries pan out, but then again, the pattern makes sense in the context of the film’s themes. As one recurring symbol implies, the violence and cruelty against the innocent in Prisoners is like a serpent swallowing its tail – evil goes round and round endlessly, until someone finally breaks the cycle.
Prisoners is out on DVD and Blu-ray on the 3rd February in the UK.
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