Led By A Trio Of Great Performances, "Prisoners" Is A Stunner

Director Denis Villeneuve’s English-language debut, “Prisoners,” is a fearlessly straightforward crime saga – one that seems downright quaint in comparison to recent, stylized crime pics by Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight Rises”) and Nicolas Winding-Refn (“Drive”). But in exchanging flair for a grounded, Midwestern sensibility, Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski are able to summon the kind of existential dread that made David Fincher’s “Zodiac” so effective – a film that “Prisoners” subtly but wisely echoes throughout much of its 150 minute running time.

Admirers of Clint Eastwood’s “Mystic River” and Ben Affleck’s “Gone Baby Gone” – films that deserved more awards season acclaim than they received – will feel right at home here. “Prisoners” never hesitates to bolt, tooth and nail, into the blackness, both thematically and visually. This is heavy, relentlessly dark material, part child abduction epic, part morality play in which its characters are both pawns in a blind game of chess and ciphers for the ugliest of human impulses. Red herrings abound in Guzikowski’s screenplay, a tactic that’s sure to infuriate some viewers, but with a normal dose of suspension of disbelief, “Prisoners” is as compelling as anything released this year.

Three actors whose performances are nothing short of indispensible headline the pic’s impressive ensemble cast. Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, a working stiff father whose daughter goes missing on a cold, damp Thanksgiving afternoon. The Kellers are visiting the neighboring Birch family – fronted by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis – for dinner, when six year-olds Anna Dover and Joy Birch wander off. In a panic, Keller’s teenage son informs him that a beat-up RV had been trolling around the neighborhood earlier in the day. Jackman hasn’t been known for nuance (see “Les Miserables,” or better yet, don’t), but here? He’s never been better.

Enter Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), a brooding, tattooed, loner cop tasked with finding the missing girls. Although Gyllenhaal was the lead in the aforementioned “Zodiac” – as hushed cartoonist-turned-amateur-sleuth, Robert Graysmith – his role is entirely different here, their similarities beginning and ending with obsession with their respective cases. Loki is surprisingly gruff, allowing Gyllenhaal to play tough like never before, and the actor commits to a facial tic (a kind of pained, incessant blinking) that signals he’s weathered plenty of storms prior to this one.

Loki quickly tracks down the driver of the RV, a disheveled, vaguely frightening twenty-something named Alex (Paul Dano). It’s a largely thankless role, but vital to the narrative, and Dano – one of the great young talents in Hollywood – pours everything he has into it. When Alex is cleared by the police and, much to the chagrin of Keller Dover, released, Keller transforms from victim to abductor, imprisoning Alex and resorting to violence to extract information as to his daughter’s whereabouts. The scenes of torture that follow, while not overly graphic, are sure to induce winces from many viewers, but more importantly, entirely invert the film’s moral compass.

This is merely the first hour of the film, but fear not – the ninety minutes that follow are even more impactful, not wasting a single frame. While Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and Dano carry the brunt of the picture, Melissa Leo is a standout as the frumpy Holly, Alex’s aunt and caretaker. When she explains Alex’s social incompetence – and his extremely low IQ – not only does it plant seeds of doubt as to his ability to abduct two girls, but it also serves as a caustic commentary on the nature of presumed innocence.

While Villeneuve and Guzikowski are obviously playing up the “whodunit” angle of the story, they’re not holding our hands. That so much of the film exists in a fog – both literally and figuratively – the characters are less victims of this experiment than we are. As we assign different moral judgments to different characters and are often proven wrong, we – the audience – become an active participant in its twists and turns. Yes, any good procedural does exactly this, but “Prisoners” is an especially good (and exhausting) one, demanding our attention every step of the way.

Roger Deakins’ cinematography is understated when it needs to be – the look of the film is refreshingly naturalistic – but downright gorgeous at key moments, particularly during the film’s climax. The onslaught of rain, sleet, snow, and general gloom is an unsurprising choice given the material, but it highlights the extensive on-location shooting and makes the world of “Prisoners” feel all the more lived-in.

It’s too early to say if the film will hold up on repeat viewings, but I was thoroughly engrossed my first time through – by the performances, the photography, Johann Johannsson’s stirring score, and its ever-shuffling deck of a screenplay. Fans of this type of film will find lots to appreciate here, but those looking for pure escapism should look elsewhere. It’s anything but a breezy journey, but it’s a deeply rewarding one for those unafraid of serious, heartbreaking, contemplative, nerve-hitting cinema. One of the year’s highlights.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Excellent)

Release Date: September 20, 2013
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
MPAA Rating: R (for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout)