Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski.
Starring: Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), Maria Bello (Grace Dover), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Melissa Leo (Holly Jones), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover), Zoe Soul (Eliza Birch), Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover), Kyla Drew Simmons (Joy Birch), Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O'Malley), Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor).
Prisoners is an example of a mainstream Hollywood thriller at its finest. The film is dark, both visually and thematically, cold, dreary, violent and disturbing. It is also expertly directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve, making his Hollywood debut, who keeps the pace up and making the two and half hour running time fly by. And it’s expertly acted by the entire cast – in particular Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal – both arguably delivering their best performances to date. And as a parent, it vividly brings to life my worst nightmare. The screenplay may take a few too many twists and turns – particularly in the last 45 minutes or so – but that doesn’t stop Prisoners from being one of the best mainstream films I’ve seen so far this year.
The film opens in small town Pennsylvania on Thanksgiving. Two families – the Dovers and the Birchs – are gathering to celebrate. It doesn’t take long for the movie to establish Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) as a man’s man – the film opens with him taking his son on a hunting trip, and advising him to be prepared for anything (hence, the supplies they have stockpiled in their basement). Both families are having a nice day, until they discover that their young daughters are missing. But where did they go? Earlier, there was a strange RV parked on the street – with someone inside. The police are called, the RV is reported at a truck stop, and Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) goes in to make an arrest. The driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano) takes off – but ends up crashing into a tree. But he doesn’t have the girls – says he doesn’t know where they are (and has the mentality of a 10 year old), and there’s no physical evidence – so eventually they have to let him go. Keller remains convinced that he knows something – and he’s determined to find out what that is. Meanwhile, Loki follows other leads – but time is running short. The days tick by, and there is no sign of the girls.
This is the basic setup for Prisoners, a movie that gets darker as it goes along, and makes the audience constantly question what they think – not only about its central mystery, but also about the characters in the movie. Jackman’s Dover starts off extremely sympathetic – what parent could not relate to his feeling of futilely and slow rising fury about his missing daughter? And what parent wouldn’t do “anything possible” to bring his daughter home? But Dover takes this “anything possible” to the extreme – and while you may find yourself still feeling for him, he makes it harder and harder as the film progresses – and he goes further and further, crossing lines most of us wouldn’t. Then there’s Loki – who is perhaps the first character Gyllenhaal has ever played that isn’t inherently likable. He is driven to find the girls, and isn’t above bending the rules to do so, but it also must be said that he’s kind of an asshole. He works without a partner – yells at his boss, doesn’t seem to be able to muster much of a bedside manner with the families of the victims. In short, he doesn’t play well with others.
These two characters, and the performances by Jackman and Gyllenhaal, elevate the movie. This is clearly a thriller for the War on Terror age – making the audience question the lengths that people will go to in order to “do the right thing”. Do the ends justify the means? As Dover, Jackman has never been better – he is driven, angry, violent, scary – and still somehow all too human. Gyllenhaal does some nervous ticks with Loki, but doesn’t overdo them. Like Keller, he is driven – but unlike him he is able to keep his emotions in check. These two actors make up the heart of the movie – and they are more than ably supported by those around them. Paul Dano is convincing as a man who is undeniably creepy – but also weak, slow and sympathetic. Melissa Leo is quite good as his enabling Aunt. Viola Davis and Terrence Howard are both very good as the other little girl’s parents – proving why you should cast good actors in small roles like these, because they make their underwritten roles feel real. Maria Bello, as Jackman’s wife, isn’t given much to do other than cry – but she does that well.
Some have compared Prisoners to David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007) – for its darkness, its violence and its portrait of obsession. I wouldn’t go that far – Zodiac is a masterpiece – one of the best American films of the last 10 years, and a film that goes a whole lot darker than Prisoners, and goes well beyond its central mystery as it timeline stretches out over a few decades. Prisoners doesn’t do that. But I would compare Prisoners to another Fincher film – Seven (1995). Seven was a mainstream thriller, about two people who respond to a disturbing central mystery in different ways – and a film that shakes audience to the core its depiction of violence and cruelty – but still wrapped up in a mainstream package. That is what Prisoners does. Yes, the movie contains too many plot twists in its third act – toying with the audience a little too much, and yet, these scenes are still effective and disturbing. Seven was Fincher’s second film – following the disappointing Alien 3 – and allowed Fincher to go on to even better things. Villeneuve has already made several films – the disturbing school shooting film Polytechnique and the Oscar nominated Incendies among them – but this is his first foray into Hollywood. It’s a great effort – and hopefully bodes well for Villeneuve’s ability to more make smart, mainstream fare in Hollywood after this. Lord knows, we need it.