Prisoners is a really strong, character-based thriller from Denis Villenueve, the director of the underrated French Canadian film Incendies. The story begins with the disappearance of two young girls from a small town Pennsylvania neighborhood on Thanksgiving Day. The immediate suspect is a half-idiot creep played by Paul Dano in full-on molester garb. After the initial search and intense interrogation, Jake Gyllenhaal’s hot shot detective doesn’t have enough to hold him, lets him go after the maximum 48 hours. This leads to one of the girls’ fathers (Hugh Jackman) kidnapping Dano and torturing him over the coming days in hopes of getting him to reveal the location of the girls. Jackman eventually reels the other father (Terrence Howard) into his seemingly necessary evil while Gyllenhaal begins to uncover evidence that makes Dano look less and less like the kidnapper.
Though the plot may occasionally dip into silly contrivances and cliches, the storytelling is very focused on the human consequences more than shootouts and car chases. The excellent cast also includes Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo, though undoubtedly Gyllenhaal is the standout here. Though not given the splashiest, most Oscar-baity role, Gyllenhaal makes his Detective Loki endlessly watchable, real and even amusing. Though he’s appeared in numerous movies I’m a big fan of (Zodiac, Jarhead), this may be his best work to date.
Beyond the strength of the actors and the script’s character concerns, what also raises up Prisoners from the usual mystery film is the attention to detail. Everything about the production design is flawless, from the middle class homes (Howard’s is nicer and more conservatively appointed compared to Jackman and Bello’s more blue collar house) to the rainy, early winter streets and woods. The characters are enriched even just by their appearance, with Gyllenhaal’s character’s backstory hardly explained yet his tattoos and Tourette-ish tics speak volumes about who he is. The photography by frequent Coen Brothers collaborator Roger Deakins really brings a punishing bleakness and starkness to the film that says much more than an over-bearing soundtrack or an expository line of dialogue ever could.
Director Villeneuve knows how to hold the tension throughout the film and can get suspense out of almost any scene, often making choices that rely on the audience to pick up on visual cues to understand what’s going on and rarely taking the viewer’s intelligence for granted. The finale may not go as dark as such a premise deserves and the film overstays its welcome some (though I honestly can’t imagine what exactly I would like excise from the film) but overall this a film very much worth your time. A big adult crime drama from a major studio with a massive cast that is not short on smarts is a rare thing indeed, and a ten spot towards Prisoners is a vote that you should most definitely cast towards more films like this being released in the future.