INCENDIES was easily my favorite film from 2010 (review), and a best foreign film nominee for the Oscsars. So when I heard director Denis Villeneuve was making a new movie, PRISONERS, shot by Roger Deakins, with Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo and Paul Dano, I just put it on my *must see* list without learning any more about it. It would be fair to say my hopes about the film were through the roof. Well, this team not only met, but exceeded my sky-high expectations.
The subject matter here is the nuclear option of drama -- child abduction. Few subjects have such potential to move audiences, and yet are nearly impossible to pull off without coming across as a ham-fisted cliche. There is so much potential for manipulation that it seems far easier to screw it up (badly), than it is to get it right. But PRISONERS never feels exploitative. In some ways, the child abduction is a MacGuffin for exploring the darkest recesses of the human psyche. But it is more than that -- it is also an engine driving a twisting, yet taut suspense thriller.
It won’t hurt to read some of the early details of the plot, because it folds upon itself in so many ways that you can’t predict the ending from the first few minutes. The Dover family (Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, and kids) are having Thanksgiving dinner at the Birch’s place (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard and kids). But when the two young daughters go missing, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is put on the case. A prime suspect, Alex, played to creepy perfection by Paul Dano, is immediately identified, but it isn’t clear if he’s guilty or not. The film follows the implosion of each family as they contemplate the unthinkable loss of their children, and their attempts to find them.
The script of PRISONERS was written by Aaron Guzikowski. I don’t know his work, but here he delivers a tight narrative free from the logical loopholes that normally plague twisty dramas like this. Often I find myself frustrated when filmmakers value surprises over logic or common sense. But here each development makes sense from the point of view of the well-developed characters. Moreover, they act in service to driving the narrative and developing the characters. I do have one nitpick about the motives of one of the characters, but to fully discuss it would ruin the plot.
There is no doubt that PRISONERS will result in a slew of academy awards. Hugh Jackman and Paul Dano have some of the meatiest roles, and they act the hell out of them. Jake Gyllenhaal certainly delivers as a detective, but we’ve seen him do this before. And here he’s more of a cipher representing logic and competence, whereas everyone around him seems more driven is reduced to their most primal, emotional state.
And let’s not forget the outstanding camera work of Roger Deakins. Whether it is swooping helicopter shots or extreme, dimly-lit closeups, he captures extraordinary images that serve the story without drawing too much attention to themselves. He lets the strong script and acting speak for itself, while subtly helping to orchestrate the mood (impending doom / the onset of winter) with lighting.
But the most credit goes to director Denis Villeneuve. Nothing about this movie seems formulaic or predictable. It keeps you guessing. The characters are compelling. The plot is constantly pushing forward. I saw it in a press screening, and I saw jaded critics leaning into the screen so hard that they were literally on the edge of their seats. Some suspense films can seem empty once you know how they turn out. But I have a feeling that PRISONERS is not one of these disposable films. For one thing, it dredges up in both the characters and the audience, deep emotions and dark thoughts. But more than that, it is a rare case of everything coming together to make movie magic.