Quebec filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (Incendies) tackles high drama with movie stars in his gripping new film Prisoners. It's a police procedural and family drama about our reactions to trauma and our own worst fears. It's a very heavy, serious film about the extremes of human behaviour and our reactions to danger and desperation reminiscent of Zodiac, Gone Baby Gone, and Mystic River.
There's so much material to Prisoners. Despite taking place very methodically over the course of one week after two girls go missing in suburban Pennsylvania, it could easily occupy a whole season's worth of television. The film primarily follows two paths. The first is of Hugh Jackman's father essentially devolving very quickly into insanity after his daughter goes missing. Jackman's Keller Dover hams it up and convinces himself he's better than everyone (particularly the police) at doing everything and anything, proceeding to impede the investigation for his own sense of vigilante justice. It's a frustratingly annoying performance as Jackman starts at eleven and has nowhere to go but up from there.
The second, far more compelling film, follows Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki (with his collar buttoned all the way to the top). He's a very straightforward policeman on the surface, bound to good detective work and solving cases. We see undertones of his righteous, moral background mixed with other religious saviour imagery. His scenes take a procedural, methodical pace as the mystery unfolds. He follows leads, and investigates clues, and we learn to trust his instincts and tactical nature. He's the total antithesis to Jackman's fieriness.
It's a long film, felt in its latter half as it wraps up more than a few resolutions. Most of the cast is overshadowed by Jackman's loud, obnoxious overtones as the sympathetic yet maniacal father. Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and wife Maria Bello seem to condone and accept his behaviour in spite of him constantly impeding anyone else from saving their daughters. Paul Dano as the main suspect along with his aunt/caretaker Melissa Leo make for difficult foils to his rage.
Aaron Guzikowski's black list script packs a lot of themes of religion and torture in between its showiness. Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins sombrely and sublimely frames the mundane scenes of police investigation and melodrama with rain-filled wide angles. Luckily, Villeneuve explores "mood and meaning [rather] than plot," to the film's benefit. He explores evil as a concept in everyone contrasted as an action of God.
Prisoners is a compelling and engrossing enough throughout, if overly ambitious. However, it's mechanical scripting includes some problematic and convenient plot points exploited by its characters. Its cast, most notably an understated performance by Gyllenhaal, and Villeneuve's very strong, disciplined direction elevates the wrenching material beyond its scope or an extended episode of Law & Order.
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