Academy award nominated director Denis Villeneuve follows his brilliant drama Incendies with a new thriller that promises deep emotion and high stakes.”
Anna and Joy are small girls, best friends and neighbours. One Thanksgiving as the two families celebrate together the girls go missing, and when a search of the neighbourhood proves fruitless their parents enlist the help of the police. Enter Detective Loki, a hard-headed cop who has solved every case he’s ever been assigned. When Loki’s efforts do not appear to work Anna’s father, Kellen Dover, takes it upon himself to find the man responsible and get the location of the girls from him by whatever means necessary.
It’s an odd coincidence that the summer blockbuster season has been bookended by two mood pieces that are vying desperately to be the great American movie such as this and The Place Beyond The Pines. Like Derek Cianfrance’s opus, Prisoners plays out as a tale of fragile masculinity as two broken fathers desperately do what must be done to keep their families together. Sadly like The Place Beyond The Pines this exploration of what it means to be a man comes at the expense of the female characters, who are underserved in both character and emotional development. Terrence Howard’s grief stricken father is very much the weaker figure emotionally and in terms of arc, as the bulk of the heavy lifting is given to Hugh Jackman. Jackman excels, showing more range and talent than in all 6 outings as everybody’s favourite mutant combined. It is a wild, almost feral performance that will have audiences riveted. This is the Jackman that got such great Oscar buzz last year for Les Miserables and should he ever decide to like the adamantium one behind his legacy as an actor will survive the blow. In the other male lead Jake Gyllenhaal goes toe-for-toe with Jackman. His is an air of cool detachment that covers a burning righteousness, and perfectly serves the character and the film. Although in giving his best performance since Zodiac Gyllenhaal brings to mind Fincher’s modern classic and the film suffers in the comparison. Paul Dano and Melissa Leo work great together with each casting doubt on the other’s mental state and motivations leading the audience to trust neither. As the mothers Viola Davis and Maria Bello do well with what they’re given, but what they are given is of so little value that they need not have cast actors of their quality.
Other than the main performances, what stands out most about the film is the visual aesthetic. Roger Deakin’s cinematography is a masterclass in the use of a colour palette to frame mood and set tone. The film starts out in eerie shades of white, giving a starkness to the landscape and coolness to the emotion, only to turn increasingly more colourful as the tension mounts and the emotions run high. Where the film is let down is in the three act structure and the pacing. At 153 minutes the film feels too long, and the last third descends into a police procedural that takes from the mood piece that had been delivered in the first 90. Much of the reveal is signposted long before we get there, and while that is not necessarily bad when the acting is this good, it is distracting. The use of religious imagery, prayer and self-sacrifice lends weight, although featuring an abusive priest does take things a little to far. The score from Jóhann Jóhannsson is a wonderful thing, completing each key scene without overtly drawing attention to itself, offering an air of foreboding that marries the aural to the visual.
If it were slightly shorter, if the female characters were better written, and if the last third was polished a little more then we’d have a Best Picture contender on our hands. As it stands Prisoners is a very good film and definitely worthy of your consideration.