Every so often a movie comes around that just looks interesting, but you are not prepared for just how stunning it truly is. It just seems like another good thriller that might be nicely satisfying, but this movie is far and beyond such meager expectations. Prisoners attracted me because I really love Hugh Jackman. He has such a genuine depth of humanity and intense screen presence in so much of what he does, but even then, I didn’t expect a performance and a film on this level of masterful brilliance.
How far would you go to protect your family? Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is facing every parent’s worst nightmare. His six-year-old daughter, Anna, is missing, together with her young friend, Joy, and as minutes turn to hours, panic sets in. The only lead is a dilapidated RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Heading the investigation, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but a lack of evidence forces his release. As the police pursue multiple leads and pressure mounts, knowing his child’s life is at stake the frantic Dover decides he has no choice but to take matters into his own hands. But just how far will this desperate father go to protect his family?
Brought to us by director Denis Villeneuve, Prisoners is undoubtedly the best film I have seen all year. A tight, taut, suspenseful and engrossing thriller that hits powerful emotional chords everywhere. If you thought the trailers gave too much away, you are very mistaken. There is so much more substance and plot nuances that a trailer could never accurately convey. Surely, I will not spoil anything for you, but the mystery of this film is cunningly devised with intelligent turns and a remarkable progression. There are many fine layers of character, emotion, and story here that interweave perfectly and beautifully. We are treated to so many well fleshed out characters inhabiting a story of very intense emotions and radical, unsettling violent actions with nerve racking consequences. You feel every ounce of emotion from these characters, and Villeneuve’s direction shines gloriously in every detail. I also love that nothing in this film is a red herring. Every lead, every piece of evidence, every detail adds to the puzzle which is brilliantly plotted out from a stunningly well written screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski. Prisoners is meticulously mapped out every step of the way, and Villeneuve utilizes all of that emotion and strategic, deliberate pacing to absorb you into the movie.
The cinematographer for this film was Roger Deakins, who also shot Skyfall which was immaculate work, and he does not falter here at all. I was constantly struck by the quality of the compositions as they all hold so much weight. Villeneuve has this shot and edited in a very conservative manner so that the substance of every frame soaks into the viewer so deeply. Early on, I love how fairly brief scenes are played out in wide masters to give you a dramatic and stoic impact on the story. The inspired cinematography constantly envelopes the screen translating the dramatic power of Villeneuve’s cinematic narrative in such exquisite detail and poignancy. The quality of the visuals, how the film is shot, and the style of editing constantly made me feel like this was a very 1970’s thriller with a modern polish. Even the Earth toned color palette reflects that, and the autumn / winter setting adds to the grim, somber atmosphere. Every technical quality of this movie is used to suck you into the depth of what transpires. Even the score is immensely effective, yet subtle. Everything just works with such precision to excellent effect.
I honestly believe that Hugh Jackman could possibly earn himself some accolades come awards season time. My faith in his talent has been paid off time and again, and I love seeing him in these gritty, hard hitting dramatic films. Keller Dover is a man who believes in preparing for the worst while praying for the best, and so, he is used to doing everything possible to protect his family from all dangers. When he feels he must take matters into his own hands, the emotional intensity of the film escalates drastically. Jackman is intensely powerful in this role pushing himself to that extra level that separates great from extraordinary. Pure, raw emotion pours out of him as Keller Dover struggles with doing the right thing for his daughter even though it is the worst, most unimaginable thing he’s ever done. The absolute conviction of what he believes he must do penetrates right through the screen right into your soul. This film constantly pushes this character into further emotionally and morally strained situations that challenge Jackman to deliver on higher and higher levels which he exceeds over and over again. This is why I love Hugh Jackman and why I was drawn to seeing this movie. He’s an incredibly relatable and engaging acting talent who pulls you in based on his depth of humanity, and that is gorgeously on display here in a masterfully crafted film.
Now, I haven’t seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything since Donnie Darko, and it’s great seeing him in a mature, hard edge role. He is really solid as this vehemently dedicated cop who maintains a level head while remaining fully committed to this case. I love seeing how Detective Loki handles the strained, heated emotions of the Dovers and Birches, and how he manages everything with meticulous perceptiveness and a dogged mentality. It’s a wonderfully written character that empathizes with these hurting people and conveys his confidence with sincerity. Gyllenhaal is intensely compelling and intriguing to watch as the film progresses. From the moment he’s introduced, eating alone at a Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, he is complex and unique. I like the nuances added into his character such as the various small tattoos on his hands and neck. They give him a darker, grittier edge along with Gyllenhaal’s sort of dark aura. Yet, he is not a dark character, but is a riveting one that adds his own intensity to the narrative. This is also a marvelous performance that only becomes more fascinating and gripping at the film progresses.
The rest of the cast is equally as powerful. Mario Bello’s character of Grace Dover deals with this frightening tragedy of her abducted daughter by falling apart, relying on medication, and just becoming a mess. It’s a pure visceral deterioration of a person torn apart by fear and pain for a loved one. Terrence Howard is another actor I just love, and he delivers such vulnerability. The struggle Franklin Birch faces when Keller pulls him into the abduction and torture of Alex Jones is a perfectly human conflict. He wants his daughter back so badly, but almost can’t reconcile the morality of what he and Keller are doing to this man with the IQ of a ten year old. The dynamics between all of these characters and their passionate, pained emotions is magnificent to behold. Even Paul Dano makes you empathize so deeply for Alex. You are never certain whether he is responsible for anything at all, or that Keller is torturing a completely innocent man. The story twists around so beautifully wrapping everyone up in this complex tapestry that any truth is possible. Even more so, nothing is all that clean cut for any suspect, and no one is completely innocent. Everyone has something shameful, shady, or tragic which shows that these are real, textured, flawed people. Every character is written and performed with such substance and rawness that you can never take anything for granted or predict where this story will lead you.
I was constantly pleased with the sophistication of storytelling here. There were times I was a tad apprehensive that the pay-off of the mystery, or that the identity of the abductor would be spoiled too soon. Instead, it was another element of the puzzle being laid out carefully with surprising, unexpected, yet entirely purposeful turns. As I said, nothing is a swerve. You’re not lead down a frivolous path to a false lead. Everything introduced in this story is there for a substantial reason. The ultimate reveal is great allowing for everything to really fall into place, and put certain characters into further, tenser jeopardy. I loved how the final act unfolds. There’s real danger at hand, and nothing proceeds remotely like a cliché. This is a fresh, smart thriller that will captivate your attention for its entire 146 minute runtime. One would think that a deliberately paced thriller with that kind of runtime would lag somewhere or feel drawn out, but Prisoners makes amazingly solid use of every minute of screentime to progress every element of story and character to its ultimate, immensely satisfying and brilliant conclusion.
Denis Villeneuve has just come out of nowhere for me, and now, he has my undivided attention. Prisoners is absolutely perfect. There is not a single aspect of it for me to criticize, only praise. This is an incredible cast delivering amazingly powerful and raw performances in a rattling and haunting thriller. I have never stated in a review of a newly released movie that it is the best one I have seen all year because you never know what else could surprise you in the remainder of that year. However, I cannot imagine what else is possibly going to steal away that title from Prisoners because it is that stunningly impressive without a flaw in sight. Do yourself a great favor and see this movie and support it. I hope you are as enthralled with it as I was.