Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Prisoners is hands down the best thriller I’ve seen in 2013. In fact, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen since The Silence of the Lambs (1991). I remember leaving The Silence of the Lambs feeling like I hadn’t merely watched a movie, I had experienced a cinematic event that would stick with me for ages. I got that same feeling when I left the screening for Prisoners. For two and a half hours I sat slack jawed and white knuckled as I watched a horrifying tale unravel in front of me. Quite literally, Prisoners left me emotionally spent.
Two couples celebrating Thanksgiving find their lives turned upside down when their young daughters disappear during the afternoon. Mild concern escalates to blind panic when the girls don’t show up after a frantic search by their parents. A run down RV that had been parked in the vicinity is the only lead available. Authorities quickly track down the vehicle and apprehend the driver, a mentally disturbed individual (Alex, played by an excellent Paul Dano) with the IQ of a ten year old. Despite an exhaustive search of the vehicle, authorities can’t find any physical evidence and are forced to let the suspect go free. Keller, (Hugh Jackman), one of the fathers, takes matters into his own hands and kidnaps Alex, desperately trying to extract information by whatever means necessary. Keller converts to vigilante from hell mode with sickening results.
Oscar-nominated director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) makes an impressive English language debut aided by a taut screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski. The film relentlessly builds unnerving tension and dread throughout the entire running time. Cinematographer Roger Deakins (True Grit, No Country for Old Men) punctuates the pervasive dread with dreary grey and blue tones.
Jackman gives his best performance to date. A quiet scene in which he breaks down is nothing short of astounding. Any parent who doesn’t openly flinch during the harrowing scene is a stoic. Jake Gyllenhaal is superb as the detective charged with the case. Initially his character swaggers with a cocky confidence, but as the days tick by we see the façade crumble as the toll of the case wears him down, mentally and physically. Maria Bello plays Keller’s grief-stricken wife, and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are excellent as the other missing girl’s parents. Initially they are horrified by Keller’s actions, but they turn a blind eye knowing it might be the only way they ever see their little girl again.
Prisoners transcends most films of the genre. It’s a psychological thriller that examines morality and justice through the actions of an anguished father who chooses to abandon his moral compass for what he perceives is the greater good. Watching a man of such character sell his soul to the devil to save his family is fascinating, tragic and enthralling. And ultimately, who can really blame him? The kicker is that despite Keller’s plight, Alex somehow emerges as the more sympathetic character.
In hindsight, Prisoners is not a perfect film by any means. The more I stewed over the story, the more plot holes emerged, but the fact remains that I was utterly caught up in the movie in the moment, and that is all I can really ask for. Prisoners left me reeling, which is a rare feat. — Shannon