If you’re itching for some grown-up drama to wash out the gaping maw of the crashy-bangy summer season, you could do a lot worse than Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, which stars the likes of Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, and serves as a clear watershed moment to kick off this year’s awards season.
Though shrouded in symbolism and bolstered by grand performances, the film is essentially about the lengths to which a pair of Pennsylvania men will go, when two young girls are abducted from their neighbourhood.
Keller Dover (Jackman) is the father of one of the girls, who becomes frustrated with the head of the investigation, Detective Loki, (Gyllenhaal) when he fails to charge the prime suspect – Alex Jones, a cognitively challenged man whose RV was seen in the area on the day that the girls went missing, played by Paul Dano.
While the police can’t find any evidence that will allow them to detain him, Keller decides to take the law into his own hands, by imprisoning and torturing Alex. But the chances of finding the two girls diminish with every passing hour, and both Keller and Loki become increasingly desperate to rescue them.
The film has picked up a great deal of word of mouth from its trailer alone, and it’s curious that it looks like a trailer that shows you most of the film. Instead, it only really covers the first half hour or so – refreshingly, there’s more to this than we’ve seen in the marketing.
The biggest hint that the marketing gives is in the maze motif that appears on the posters and in the trailer. Aside from playing a part in the central mystery, it speaks to the measured pace and structure of the film. It’s full of dead ends and disorienting features, and you don’t always know quite where it’s going.
More than that, it’s a very harrowing film indeed. Keller’s decisions are most obviously analogous to American foreign policy during the war on terror: he’s a gun-toting family man, and he’s far from being a clear-cut hero. There’s more consideration and self-awareness here than in other child abduction movies, like the Taken series.
Although it’s very slowly paced, one regard in which it never lets up is just how bloody heavy-going it is. Over the course of two-and-a-half hours, the tension peaks and troughs; the peaks are nail-bitingly, skin-crawlingly intense, and the troughs are still typified by an almost suffocating sense of dread and foreboding.
Having said all of this, I wonder how much of it has come together in the execution, as opposed to being there on the pages of the script. Writer Aaron Guzikowski got himself on the Black List of lauded unproduced scripts for this effort a few years ago, but there’s some ropey dialogue and a checklist of police procedural clichés to get through as well.
Without spoiling anything, the chief problem is in the police procedural aspect. The film has been compared to David Fincher’s Zodiac, perhaps as much for starring Jake Gyllenhaal as for its bleak tone, but that film really played upon its ambiguity. Guzikowski is more geared towards a resolution.
That desire for closure ultimately jars, in a character-driven, performance-led morality play. Gyllenhaal is great in the detective role, compulsively blinking in a really unsettling way, and understating his performance to balance the grandstanding that goes on elsewhere, but the writing doesn’t quite stand up to the effort that he puts in.
Even though he’s yelling through a lot of it, Jackman has the tougher role as Keller, and he really gets the most out of the character’s foibles, playing differently to any other role of his that I can remember. His scenes with Dano are particularly powerful in that regard, as the two characters turn over and over in the audience’s sympathies.
Frankly, if we’re meant to root for anyone getting an Oscar out of this, it’s because it’s that time of year where we pin our hopes on Roger Deakins finally winning a little gold bloke, for his cinematography. His work here is reliably excellent, and ensures that the film looks just as stark as it feels.
I recognise that I say that in reaction to over-hype, because Prisoners is the kind of film that seems destined for something of a minor backlash. This is partly because every film critic and their mum is saying it’s the best thriller of the year, but mostly because the marketing has given it a strange, mischievous streak that will really mess with mainstream audiences.
Boasting some of the year’s most intense and involving scenes, with lashings of passionate melodrama and large performances, Prisoners doesn’t quite stand up to the status of a Zodiac, and when it comes to following through to a bitter end, it doesn’t have the sheer mettle of a Mystic River or a Gone Baby Gone.
But there’s more than enough quality here to suggest those comparisons without looking poorer for it, and Prisoners stands as a thought-provoking drama, with enough skin-crawling moral quandaries to leave a big impression on genre buffs and unsuspecting viewers alike.
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