Telluride Film Review: ‘Prisoners’
The wages of sin, guilt, vengeance and redemption weigh heavy on the characters of “Prisoners,” a spellbinding, sensationally effective thriller with a complex moral center that marks a grand-slam English-lingo debut for the gifted Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve. Powered by an unusually rich, twisty script by Aaron Guzikowski (“Contraband”) and career-best performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, this tale of two Pennsylvania families searching for their kidnapped daughters sustains an almost unbearable tension for two-and-a-half hours of screen time, satisfying as both a high-end genre exercise and a searing adult drama of the sort Hollywood almost never makes anymore. Fully deserving of mention in the same breath as “Seven,” “Mystic River” and “In the Bedroom,” this Sept. 20 Warners release may prove too intense for some viewers, but should ride strong reviews and word of mouth to above-average R-rated returns. It immediately enters the ring as an awards-season heavyweight.
Though at first glance the pic would appear to have little in common with his previous work, Villeneuve has long shown an interest in the psychological and emotional consequences of violence, as evidenced by 2009’s serenely chilling, black-and-white “Polytechnique” (about a real-life Canadian mass shooting) and especially 2010’s Oscar-nominated “Incendies,” which “Prisoners” echoes in its fragmented central mystery and its theme of the good and ill transmitted from parents to children. But in every respect, the new film finds Villeneuve working on his biggest and most ambitious canvas to date and, perhaps most impressive, flawlessly catching the moods and mores of small-town, God-fearing America.
The movie announces its measured, quietly confident tone right from the opening scene of a father-son deer-hunting trip, the first of many images of predators pursuing their prey. “Be ready,” says the father, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Jackman), to the teenage boy (Dylan Minnette), a crucifix dangling from the rear-view mirror, a late autumn chill hanging in the air. Back at home, where Keller’s wife, Grace (Maria Bello), and 6-year-old daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), safely await his return, the basement is stocked with enough emergency provisions for a nuclear holocaust. (Among other thing, “Prisoners” is very much a movie about what people have in their basements.) All the canned goods in the world, however, cannot shield the Dovers from what is about to happen next.
Theirs is the kind of quaint suburban street where people walk over to the neighbor’s house for Thanksgiving dinner and feel relatively insulated from the world’s violent ills. Yet it is during just such a Thanksgiving that Anna wanders off unsupervised along with 7-year-old Joy, the daughter of family friends Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, respectively). By dessert, both have vanished without a trace. The only clue: Earlier in the day, the girls were seen playing around a camper van parked in front of a vacant house down the road, the faint sound of a radio suggesting that someone was inside, patiently watching.
Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is spending his Thanksgiving alone, flirting with the waitress in a lonely Chinese diner, when he first responds to the case. In the best film-noir manner, rain is sheeting down, and the camera of the great d.p. Roger Deakins (who has shot the film in wintry blues and blacks with an expressionist edge) pushes in slowly from behind. Loki, we are told, has never failed to solve a case, though this is at odds with the man’s solemn demeanor, his haunted gaze and the elaborate tattoos jutting out from his collar suggesting reserves of private rage. Compare this to the eager-beaver murder sleuth Gyllenhaal played in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” and the full breadth of his impressive range immediately comes into focus.