The wonderfully tense and gruelling kidnap drama Prisoners is one of the year’s best films. Relentlessly gripping and often disturbing, the film depicts a parent’s worst nightmare as two little girls mysteriously disappear from a Thanksgiving Day celebration. With the police investigation floundering, one of the girls’ Fathers, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and the investigating detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) resort to increasingly desperate ploys to find the perpetrator. Through their actions the sedate façade of suburbia is ruptured and pent-up guilt and vengeance unleashed.
Prisoners succeeds on a number of levels: as a creepy thriller, as an engrossing police procedural, as a domestic drama and as a compelling critique of America’s post 9/11 morality and “by any means necessary” attitude to the war on terror. The film maintains a powerful hold on the audience by carefully eking out information about the children’s disappearance and providing tantalising clues about what’s really going on in the characters’ minds. The film gives us numerous red herrings, blind alleys and false leads but like the maze motif that appears throughout the film, it cleverly unites each of its twisting pathways into a fascinating whole.
Prisoners also works as a powerful mood piece. Precise yet gritty direction from Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) and superb cinematography from Roger Deakins – which mixes the grim autumnal look of Silence of the Lambs with the yellow-tinted atmospherics of Killing Them Softly – bring a palpable feeling of menace to American suburbia. Villeneuve constructs a grim world with not only the crime itself but scenes of dilapidated neighbourhoods, indications of a failing American economy and frequent references to misguided and corrupted religion. Thankfully, Villeneuve weaves in few threads of hope so this film is not as perversely bleak as something like David Fincher’s Seven.
The film also sees what may be career best performances from its a-list cast. Hugh Jackman is, despite a slightly shaky American accent, sensational as the bitter, paranoid, seemingly unhinged father who’s prepared to go to any lengths to find his daughter. Jake Gyllenhaal is utterly compelling throughout as the brooding, tattooed and often weirdly uncommunicative Detective Loki. His tough and slightly crazed performance erases all memory of the goofy kid we often saw in his earlier days. A supporting cast that includes a wonderfully perplexing and morally ambiguous Paul Dano, a superbly unnerving, almost unrecognisable Melissa Leo, a painfully conflicted Terrence Howard and an extremely sinister David Dastmalchian all burn themselves into the memory. Maria Bello and Viola Davis as the girls’ mothers are also excellent despite slightly underwritten roles.
Some viewers may find this film’s confronting subject matter, prevailing sense of dread and 153 minute length an endurance test but those willing to immerse themselves in Villeneuve’s superbly crafted world will find that, as with David Fincher’s Zodiac, a long and complex mystery can be utterly riveting from start to finish.
Nick’s rating: Four stars.
Director(s): Denis Villeneuve.
Release date: 17th Oct 2013
Running time: 153 mins.
- What’s on Built For Speed, Friday 25th October 2013
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- Film review: MOVIE 43, from Built For Speed
- Film review: IT FOLLOWS, from ‘Built For Speed’