Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano
Prisoners asks the question how far would you go to save your child? It shows the extremes that someone can take without ever making you feel like they are a villain. Denis Villeneuve is a masterful director, who can tackle difficult subjects without ever making them feel sensationalised or exploitative. Prisoners could have easily turned into an action revenge thriller, but instead it’s a powerful and emotional story that will haunt you long after the closing credits.
While two families celebrate thanksgiving together, they suffer a great tragedy. The young daughter from both families is kidnapped and the police have very little evidence to go on. Their main suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) has the IQ of a ten-year-old, so he couldn’t possibly have hidden the girls. After the suspect is released Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman), the father of anna (Erin Gerasimovich), one of the two girls, takes matters into his own hands. At the same time Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has made a promise to Anna’s mother Grace (Maria Bello) that he will find her daughter and bring her home.
This is one hell of a dark and sombre film. It’s a slow-burn mystery that takes it’s time revealing all the clues, and there’s not one point during the two and a half hour run time where it feel tedious. It’s incredibly tense and will keep you guessing right up to the end about what is happening. There are so many twists and turns throughout that keeps it engaging and you’ll be on the edge of your seat wanting to find out what happens next.
Hugh Jackman gives his best performance to date as the grieving father who wants nothing more than to save his daughter. After Alex is freed from the police, Keller kidnaps him, keeping him in an old house. His plan is to hurt Alex until he tells him wear his daughter is, or she might die. The violence is brutal, but most of it happens off screen, the film doesn’t glorify the violence, with the most shocking moment being Alex’s face after a beating that you don’t really see. His screams when he is left under scolding water are enough to chill you. Jackman’s face as he listens to the screaming is filled with a conflicted remorse. He knows that there’s a possibility that he doesn’t have the right man, but in his mind, he must do something to try and save his daughter. It’s a horrific moment in the film.
Gyllenhaal is also fantastic in the film. Detective Loki is a renowned detective, who hasn’t left a case unsolved. He’s an overachiever who gets to invested in the case, struggling with the little leads he has. His performance is full of subtlety, from the way he stands, chewing cocktail sticks to the repetitive blinking when he’s on the edge of snapping in the police interrogation scene. Both are simply fantastic, and their powerful performances are like an emotional gut punch.
Sadly, the mothers of the two children aren’t given the same screen time or presence in the story. Anna’s mother, Grace, spends most of the film in a state of denial and drugged up, lying in bed. Nancy (Viola Davis), the mother of Eliza is a much stronger character who lets Keller go down the dark path to save their children, but her role is very small. It would have been interesting to explore the mothers more in the story. Keller is out late most nights, torturing Alex, and the strain that puts on Grace and their son is hinted at but not truly explored.
Without giving anything away, the ending does feel a little out of place for the film. Everything is tied up too neatly and for a film that is so bleak and sombre the ending feels too complete. There are moments when it truly feels like the narrative is about to get even darker, but something always pulls it back. An ending with more ambiguity would have been a lot more fitting for the film.
Prisoners is an emotional and powerful story about loss and anger. It has some flaws, but the story still grabs you from the first moment and doesn’t let you go until the final moments. It’s one of the best thrillers in recent years, filled with stunning performances and a story that for the most part isn’t afraid to explore the truly disturbing things that humans are capable of.