Anyone who sat through Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s well-crafted but morally repugnant Oscar-nominated film, Incendies, knows he’s a man who loves to play with the audience and turn the screws to the point of torture. While going more mainstream with the kidnap thriller, Prisoners, he still finds way to tighten the ropes and hold an audience captive. Red herrings, recurring visual motifs, carefully placed clues and masterful editing have become the director’s calling cards, and he stacks his deck in Prisoners with an A-list cast and sets the brooding atmosphere with Roger Deakins’ flawless photography shaded in blues and greys meant to mirror the moral ambiguities of this sordid tale.
Though it runs over two and a half hours, Prisoners is relentlessly compelling in a cold, calculated procedural kind of way. Much of the film plays like the pilot episode of the next great TV crime thriller as it sets up the case of two missing girls and toggles itself between the families affected and the lead detective bent on finding the children. Unfortunately it’s that same sensibility that leads Aaron Guzikowski’s disappointingly rote and too-tidy script awry. We never really get to know the characters deeply as they are all composed of stock genre elements and would be better fleshed out in a long serial television format.
Hugh Jackman is the everyman father willing to go rogue to find his little girl. Terrence Howard is the father a bit more composed and reluctant to bend the law. Viola Davis is the stoic matriarch willing to let the men settle this. Maria Bello is the mother who can’t even get out bed and is reduced to tears and pills. The older teenage children talk of running away from it all. And finally, Jake Gyllenhaal is the lonely, dedicated hard-edged detective (check out those tattoos) married to his job. We’ve seen variations of these characters before in similar thrillers. There’s nothing novel here. Even the suspects (including a child-like but creepy Paul Dano) are straight out of psych profiling 101. Oh, yes, and let’s not overlook Melissa Leo, batshit calm here, playing a rift on Melissa Leo.
However, the actors playing these stock characters bring their A-game and traipse across Villeneuve’s crafty cinematic psychology with the appropriate gusto to hold the audience in rapture. Jackman has never been given this kind of free reign before, and his is an emotional and physical performance that echoes Mel Gibson in his Braveheart/Ransom heyday. Gyllenhaal, with his blinking and brooding and chesire-cat smiles before getting rough with suspects, gives what might be his best performance yet. These two leads rise above the clichés of their roles by fully embracing the genre elements and using them as vehicles to deliver compelling performances.
All along the way, Villeneuve pulls the strings with just the right amount of cool detachment. Though it grows a bit preposterous in its final act, and all the pieces of the puzzle fall too neatly into place, we’d be a cruel audience if we didn’t wince with suspense during a particularly harrowing race-against-time-car-careening-down-a-wet-highway climax. As grim as the tale is, Villeneuve knows we are all rooting for things to end well. We want to be tortured but then be rewarded with the warm and fuzzy. Sometimes though, it’s all just a game, and before getting that final catharsis, bastards like Villenueve know they can differentiate themselves by sounding a referee’s whistle…just…at…the…right…time.
Game over. Fade to black.
Written by David H. Schleicher