Gorgeously shot and impeccably directed, Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve makes the jump to big budget America studio productions with the highly entertaining, mostly thrilling, but narratively wonky mystery-drama Prisoners. While it has a bit too much going on across its two and a half hour running time, it never fully bogs down until it becomes a completely different – and sadly far less satisfying – movie in its final 40 minutes.
On Thanksgiving, two young girls are abducted from their quiet, suburban Pennsylvania street, last seen hanging around a shady looking RV. The case falls to Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a square jawed detective who almost immediately brings in a suspect (Paul Dano), but lets him go shortly after due to lack of evidence. This doesn’t sit right with Keller (Hugh Jackman), one of the missing girls’ parents, who is so distraught, grief stricken, and caught up with the circumstantial evidence of the case that he kidnaps the mentally disabled initial suspect to try and torture and beat information out of him. Keller begins a cat and mouse game with Loki of his own, with the detective rightfully knowing that the vengeful father could be more of a detriment to his daughter’s life than a help.
Writer Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay gets off on the right foot, starting off as a cut above the average revenge thriller and mystery. The way the story shifts between two men who are inarguably making mistakes on their own independent investigation into the events that have transpired make the film have a sense of immediacy that makes the time fly by very quickly even after its third act, very abrupt left turn. The race to ensure the safety of the missing girls leads to numerous slip ups, like Loki ignoring key evidence until it might be too late or Keller not really allowing his captive a chance to speak beyond the answers he hopes to get at the end of a hammer or a scalding hot shower. It’s a narrative keen to talk about the nature of broken systems even when the final twists are revealed, but the real revelation is that everyone involved in this sordid affair is only transfixed on the most broken elements of these systems.
Villeneuve (who made his name in Canada with such highly lauded films as Incendies and Polytechnique, both of which echo in his work here) works hand in hand with master cinematographer Roger Deakins to create a lushly photographed and tightly edited modern pulp fiction. They bring out the extra effort needed to take the material beyond melodrama and malaise and instead bring a keen sense of melancholy and ambiguity. If one were to think about the script for a while after it puzzles itself out, things are pretty obvious from the start, but Villeneuve and Deakins (who seriously after Skyfall last year and his body of work overall NEEDS an Academy Award ASAP) work harder to make sure that every frame feels almost hypnotic in construction. The cold, rainy climate of the American Northeast in winter has rarely looked better on screen, and certainly not this foreboding and emotionally harsh. The very climate becomes a character in film without ever actually impacting things to a massive degree. It’s a world that’s easy to get lost in.
The performances are also on the same melancholic and subtle wavelength. Jackman, who rarely gets the chance to play with material this dark and anguished outside of musical work, plays Keller as a man cranked to 11 on the inside with rage and fear, but never going over the top. There’s a clear brutality to Keller, but also a prudent kind of simplicity to his madness. He’s assuredly a bully, but one who dangerously feels he has a divine purpose. On top of that, it’s also quite frightening to think how relatable and visceral the emotions and actions of Keller might resonate with viewers. It’s unconscionable to think about the loss of a child and how one might react in a similar situation, but through the conviction displayed by Jackman it feels almost distressingly real. It’s some of his finest work to date.
In the other lead, Gyllenhaal gets one of the rare roles where a character’s mysterious and unexplained backstory actually pays off. Sporting several crude tattoos, a jutting chin, and somewhat sunken eyes, not only does the actor play down his naturally good looks to a great degree, but he embodies the kind of authority figure that no one in their right mind would ever want to lie to upon locking eyes with them. Loki clearly means business wherever he goes, and even his superiors seem to hesitate when telling him what to do. He makes mistakes, but unlike Keller, who manifests frustration in outbursts of rage, Loki atones and moves on with greater ease. His appearance, mannerisms, and cadence – all wonderfully conveyed in Gyllenhaal’s best performance – suggest a man who could very easily snap at any moment. The film builds somewhat predictably to a point where the two men have to swap positions and ideologies, but the leads sell both sides of the moral imperative nicely.
It’s just kind of a shame that the rest of the film built around these two characters feels so cliché and the remainder of the cast seeming short changed. Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are the neighbours and parents of the other missing child, and while they have some great scenes with Jackman in the first half bearing witness to Keller’s righteous crusade, they’re forgotten about and kind of blown off just as the film should be picking up steam. Maria Bello gets the unenviable task of playing the hysterical wife of Keller, a role of sleepless anxiety that seems like it could have been written for anybody who would be just as underutilized. Dano is fine as the obvious twitchy prime suspect, but again it’s mostly written as caricature and shorthand. Ditto Melissa Leo as Dano’s caretaker.
There’s a precise moment right before the big reveal (that won’t be spoiled) when the intriguingly ambiguous trajectory of the plot goes off the rails. It hinges on a twist that reeks almost of Saturday matinee hackwork. It can be seen coming from pretty far off, and yet the script doesn’t set it up to a point where it makes very much logical sense. It becomes such a standard thriller that the final act seems to have come almost directly from a circa-1998 clone of Seven. Towards the very end, however, Villeneuve almost rights the ship entirely with a great deal of style and energy, and he at least gives the audience something thoughtful to go out on with the film’s certain to be divisive final shot. If Villeneuve didn’t create a consistent atmosphere for the movie, this ending never would have worker, but his steady hand guides it well.
It’s interesting that a filmmaker as smart and thoughtful as Villeneuve would make the jump to Hollywood with such a safe property, but that’s ultimately what makes Prisoners worth recommending overall. There’s certainly an audience for both films this one screenplay is trying to be at the same time, and either of them benefit greatly from having this cast and someone as thoughtful and emotionally analytical as Villeneuve at the helm. He cares clearly more about the character dynamics than the bloodletting, and it could have been a slog in lesser hands. He never elevates it to a level of true art or even exceptional cinema, but Hollywood could certainly use more craftsman capable of paying attention to the little details that make movies like this worth watching in the first place.