NOTE: This review was originally published on September 8, 2013 after I saw Prionsers at the Toronto Film Festival. I am republishing it today as it hits theaters this weekend.
Your child has been kidnapped and a suspect has been brought in for questioning. His battered RV was parked in your neighborhood around the same time your 6-year-old daughter went missing. After a couple of days, several rounds of questioning and a lie detector test it’s determined he wasn’t involved and is released. No other suspects exist, your girl is still missing and your spouse is a blubbering mess. What do you do?
Prepare for dark territory with Denis Villeneuve‘s Prisoners, a film where one father offers his response to the question above as an increasingly mysterious case surrounding his daughter’s disappearance unfolds. In terms of tone, Prisoners is operating on the same dark level as David Fincher‘s Zodiac and Roger Deakins delivers some of the best cinematography of his career, turning something as trivial as a car coming to a curbside stop into a foreboding dolly shot. Even tree bark offers up riddles of its own.
Set during the grey and gloomy months of a Pennsylvanian November, we’re introduced to Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their respective families. It’s Thanksgiving and as the day wears the two soon-to-be victims ask if they can briefly run back to the Dovers’. Permission is granted, but not without their big brother and sister. The exception is noted, but not obeyed. They head back alone. They don’t come back.
After an exhaustive search, the only suspect is the curious driver of the aforementioned RV, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Greasy and soft-spoken, Alex has the IQ of a ten-year-old and claims to have no knowledge of the children’s whereabouts and is eventually allowed to go home with his adoptive mother (Melissa Leo). As you may guess, this doesn’t go over too well with the little girls’ parents, Keller in particular.
Jackman is rage personified. Any one of his incarnations as the comic book antihero Wolverine would run from Keller Dover. He’s a father that will stop at nothing to get his little girl back and God be with anyone that gets in his way.
On the other side of the story is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a man whose personal life is a bit more grey. Initially seen alone in a diner on Thanksgiving night, he gets the call to investigate Alex’s RV parked near a wooded area. His methods seem sound and he’s determined to get the two missing girls back, but there’s nothing he can say or do that will convince Keller absolutely everything is being done.
For those that have seen the trailer and believe the film has been spoiled, it hasn’t. The latter half offers a lot more to chew on including turns in the narrative and questions of morality that are both answered and left open to interpretation. To top it off, the performances across the board are stellar with Jackman and Gyllenhaal offering some of the best work I’ve seen from either of them, both worthy of Oscar attention. Jackman especially deserving of consideration along with a sneaky little gem of a performance from Melissa Leo.
Along with the cinematography from Deakins, which is sure to earn him his 11th Oscar nomination, the score from little known Icelandic composer JÃ³hann JÃ³hannsson, contributing for the first time to a major motion picture, brings a heightened level of menace to Deakins’ cool greys and rain soaked pavement.
There is something, however, about Prisoners that keeps me from really falling for it and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Maybe it has to do with the overall efficiency of Villeneuve’s direction, opposite a few coincidences that come up over the course of the nearly 150-minute running time that contradict how effective the rest of the film is. It’s not fair, but the film is almost a victim of its own success in this case. Minor details end up amplified as a result, but given the complexity of the narrative, the performances, exceedingly high level of filmmaking and the balance of emotions, Prisoners is not a film to be missed.