I don’t know…, if Prisoners had come out twenty years ago I probably wouldn’t have considered it a pleasant surprise. That’s not at all to say the film feels outdated or is any kind of throwback, just that it’s an A-list, original screenplay-based mystery-thriller that managed to totally sneak up on me, I don’t think I’d even heard of it until the first reviews started coming in a few weeks back, and knew very little of the plot before viewing.
On second thought, I should perhaps be careful when labelling it as a ‘pleasant surprise’, as nothing about Prisoners could otherwise be called ‘pleasant’. It is a relentlessly bleak film, both in tone, subject matter, and perfectly reflected by its stark yet striking cinematography (courtesy of the acclaimed Roger Deakins).
Hugh Jackman plays a religious, suburban father who’s always concerned with safety (he stores survival supplies in his basement at all times). On Thanksgiving, he, his wife (Maria Bello) and kids visit their neighbours (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) for dinner, in the course of the evening’s celebrations, both families’ young daughters go missing. A mysterious RV was seen outside earlier in the evening and is quickly located, but the man aboard (Paul Dano) is mentally handicapped and could not be the abductor, the police release him to follow other leads while a distraught Jackman starts an investigation of his own.
Almost every technical element of Prisoners is strong, and they’re brought together skilfully by French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, making his English-language debut. Several films recently have suffered by allowing themselves overly generous running times, Prisoners also comes in at two and a half hours, but actually earns it. The film is always gripping and suspenseful, and never drags as it takes you down routes that don’t lead to the easy conclusions they might initially appear to. The acting is also of a very high calibre, with both Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal (as the loner cop leading the investigation) rising to deliver excellent work in a couple of their most challenging roles yet. As both are driven to further lengths, they never resort to overacting. When Gyllenhaal fails to pick up on a clue many audience members will have already (I certainly did), it convinces as human error of an overworked cop rather than contrived screenwriting. Likewise the film’s dual focus prevents it from ever feeling like an extended police procedural. It’s choice of a Pennsylvania location also helps it to stand out more than if it had been set in New York or L.A.
Prisoners isn’t without its flaws though, the ‘all-American’ nature of Jackman’s character is a little over-emphasised, to the extent that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is mentioned as being one of his favourite songs. With Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s layered star turns front and centre, the film leaves little room for its other great cast members. Maria Bello gets a couple of moments as Jackman’s distraught wife but the other parents (Howard and Davis), whose daughter is also missing, end up feeling a little overlooked. Only Paul Dano as the mentally-challenged suspect gets to make much of an impression. There is also the case of the consequences of one particular character’s actions’ apparently not considered when the others are, but that can’t be discussed properly without spoilers.
Prisoners is not an easy watch, reflecting many a parent’s worst nightmare, even more so as it realistically portrays how this sort of thing can still happen no matter how safety conscious you are. Several people have drawn a war-on-terror parallel to parts of the film, which can be seen though the film itself is not overtly political. Prisoners succeeds in always keeping your attention, and finds things to say about the lengths people will go in desperate situations. It’s tough going, but ultimately a very well-made, rewarding, and thought-provoking thriller.