Prisoners Review

Prisoners screenshot

A captivating and devastatingly real piece of fiction

Hot on the trail of his Oscar-nominated Incendies, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve furthers his rapidly growing acclaim with Prisoners, a captivating and deeply affecting mystery thriller that doesn’t relinquish its hold until long after the credits roll.

Villeneuve directs Aaron Guzikowski’s original screenplay that centres on the abduction of two young girls, one belonging to Keller and Grace Dover and the other to their close friends Franklin and Nancy Birch. Loki, an accomplished detective, is assigned to the case and begins a relentless search, but when he lacks the hard evidence to arrest a clear suspect, Keller takes matters into his own hands.

This character driven and performance dominated narrative is enriched by the ensemble cast Villeneuve employs. Each actor benefits from Guzikowski’s exceptionally detailed characters to bring profound individuality and authenticity to their performances. These strong characters and the emphatic performances they supply are the driving force behind this powerfully real reflection of the different ways people react to a harrowing experience.

While many point to Jake Gyllenhaal’s supreme turn in Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain as the peak of his career, it’s his roles in Jarhead, Zodiac and now Prisoners that have been most effective. As Detective Loki, the cold hearted and ruthless police officer tasked with discovering the location of the missing girls, Gyllenhaal channels these previous roles to inform a much deeper character and deliver one of the year’s finest performances.

Similarly to Robert Graysmith in David Fincher’s masterpiece Zodiac, Loki is a dedicated character who is so obsessed with the central mystery that he becomes disconnected from the emotions of the case. However, Loki’s turmoil is much more than skin deep. His suppressed emotions of a harrowing past are orchestrated through constant ticks and twitches, his symbolic tattoos and one particular scene where he hints at understanding the horrors of being molested as a child.

Gyllenhaal’s dispassionate Loki is counteracted by an uncompromising Hugh Jackman as Keller who follows the award recognition of his appearance in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables to deliver another astonishingly emotional performance.

Keller Dover is a father desperate for revenge, but also consumed by guilt and anger. Adding depth to a powerfully emotional character, Guzikowski hides subtleties that the actor and director slowly uncover through performance and scene construction. Keller has an underground bunker brimming with survival gear and tinned food to ensure that he can protect his family from any eventual danger, suggesting that he is the type to blame himself for his daughter’s disappearance. Rather than the painful exposition that a weaker film would rely on, Prisoners executes these subtle ideas perfectly.

Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Paul Dano complete a prolific cast who take full advantage of their well written characters to deliver profound performances. Each of their characters is entirely believable and gives Villeneuve’s universe remarkable authenticity. It’s a piece of fiction, but it feels entirely real, which makes the abduction of the two girls as harrowing and disturbing to the characters on screen as it is to the viewer witnessing it.

Yet, despite the disturbing nature of the film’s central theme, Prisoners is a pleasure to watch. Roger Deakins’ phenomenal cinematography results in yet another visually arresting film. His trademark style of slow tracking shots creates a breath-like rhythm in every scene. With the aid of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s haunting score Deakins creates a gripping atmosphere rich in tension and suspense throughout, but it’s the moments where he utilises his stylistic flair with an artistic flourish that are the most emphatic and memorable.

Prisoners is so unrelenting in its intensity that at 150 minutes it’s imperative that you’re comfortable on the edge of your seat. It’s long, but it’s intelligent, rich in detail and engaging from the moment it begins. As the best of its kind since Zodiac, Denis Villeneuve’s mystery thriller delivers on every front and is sure to see reward at the approaching awards season.

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