My experience with Prisoners began before a single frame of the film flickered onto the screen. Prior to our screening, director Denis Villeneuve prefaced his latest project with a heartfelt note that was read aloud.
Running time: 144 min.
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello
In the letter, the French-Canadian auteur explained how Prisoners is his first foray into Hollywood filmmaking, and that despite being a “big-budget” movie with bonafide movie stars, he wanted to keep his creative vision intact – a task easier said than done.
Yet, Prisoners defies those odds. Villeneuve’s fifth feature film is an absolute knockout, a mentally and physically exhausting exploration of the great lengths some will go to for the ones they love.
The film opens with a father and his son scoping out a deer. The teenage boy pulls the trigger on the rifle, making his first kill.
This sudden burst of unrepentant brutality is followed by a prayer – an admittedly peculiar pattern of events that effectively sets up this religiously charged thriller.
What follows is even more troubling. Best friends Ana (Erin Geraismovich) and Eliza (Zoe Borde) decide to go on a walk after dinner, and end up never returning.
The grade-school age girls suddenly vanish, with all signs pointing to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a soft-spoken, big-frame glasses-wearing man-child accused of abducting, raping, and murdering the two girls.
The Police force assigns detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) to the case, an officer who has maintained a perfect “crimes solved” record. Unfortunately the police can’t find enough evidence to hold Alex in custody, and find themselves legally required to set him free.
Though not as wildly unrealistic and nihilistic as Liam Neeson in the Taken series, Keller Dover (father of Ana, played by Hugh Jackman), frustrated and mercurial, takes the law into his own hands, kidnapping and locking Alex into a rundown home.
To ascertain what he did with the missing girls, Keller abuses and brutalizes Alex, hoping for some information.
While Keller and Franklin (father of Eliza, played by Terrence Howard) destroy Jones limb by limb, Loki continues his search for any sort of clue that would lead him to the culprit.
Watching each of their personal narratives unfold concurrently (and occasionally intertwining), it becomes clear that Alex, Keller, and detective Loki are all held captive by something or someone.
Alex is locked in a sordid house, Keller is imprisoned by the guilt that has permeated within, and Loki is beholden to his perfect record.
But Prisoners thrives when it narrows its focus on Keller and his ongoing struggle discerning right from wrong. This internal battle is only exacerbated as he tortures Alex. He so badly wants his daughter back that he’s willing to disown the puritanical ideals he was previously bounden to.
Although lacking subtlety, Villeneuve laces Prisoners with heavy religious overtones (i.e. the “Our Father” is said in a number of scenes). The ostensibly rigid morality of Catholicism is shattered to pieces in Prisoners.
Each character who identifies themself as Catholic – whether it be Keller, Father Dunn (played by Len Carlou), or Grace Dover (a mother figure to Alex) – is presented in a less-than-flattering light.
More engrossing than Villeneuve’s reflections on Catholicism is the delicate camerawork evident in each scene. Not a moment of Roger Deakin’s lurid, eerie, and grim cinematography is wasted.
Whether it be a sprawling chase sequence or a tender exchange between husband and wife, every shot seems to be perfectly framed and delightfully coherent.
Before we drown in hyperbole and superlatives, it’s worth noting that I tend to take a copious amount of notes during every movie I write about, especially toward the beginning. Thirty minutes into the movie I looked down at my notepad only to realize I had not written down a single word.
Take that as a living testament to just how immersive Prisoners is. Equally chilling, suspenseful, incisive, and harrowing, Villeneuve need not ever worry about his artistic vision disappearing from his movies, big or small.