Over the past decade Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve has emerged as one of the most fascinating and consistently solid filmmakers of our generation. From the mesmerizing psychological thriller Maelstrom to the gripping shootout drama Polytechnique to 2010’s disturbing Incendies, Villeneuve has steadily become more adept at delving into the theme of a traumatic incident and twisting the knife into its implications. With Prisoners he’s finally found a way to make a commercial film on the subject with big stars.
With a dash of Zodiac, Mystic River and German thriller The Silence, Villeneuve’s Prisoners stands apart from most Hollywood thrillers. It doesn’t follow serial killer tropes and avoids the tactic of morbid imagery for shock value. And yet, the film manages to cause a few knots in your stomach thanks to Villeneuve’s stark, uncomplicated direction.
Hugh Jackman, in the best performance of his career plays a distraught man whose kid disappears from home after a mysterious RV pulls up alongside his driveway. Jackman is bearded, puffy eyed and constantly stringy and you wonder why this man is doing commercial stuff like Wolverine when there is a monster of a dramatic actor hidden in there. The only element in the film that manages to rival his brilliance is Jake Gyllenhaal as the cop investigating the case. The kid from Donnie Darko has come a long, long way and he’s great at hinting towards the demons in his character’s closet.
Prisoners does something different early on to bring a new twist to the serial killer genre. What would you do if your kid suddenly disappeared and the only suspect is let go by the cops for lack of evidence? Would you just watch helplessly or let nihilism take over you? That’s the path that writer Aaron Guzikowski takes to question the basics of morality, guilt, law and justice, and he does it with stomach turning realism. As Gyllenhaal’s cop sifts through the murky layers of strange basements, creepy clergy and sex offenders, Jackman’s goes through a Dostoyevsky-eqsue breakdown to uncover the truth. There’s plenty of religious symbolism but Villeneuve establishes a chilling moral subtext to it all and lets you make judgments – little details like these is what makes Prisoners so good. And when you veer from feeling hate to pity for the suspect, you know you’re watching great cinema.
Like in Incendies Villeneuve connects various strings together with a neat little bow – even the final scene cuts to black in the most precise possible manner. Cinematographer Roger Deakins absolutely nails the cold, isolated atmosphere here and it goes well with the nearly nonexistent music. Villeneuve’s minimalist, fluff-free approach to filmmaking is refreshing, as is his decision to cast the young Paul Dano as the suspect, whose real life felony is being criminally underrated.
(First published in Mid Day)