Prisoners is the first English-language film from Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, most famous for the 2010 drama Incendies. Taking a stellar cast of Hollywood favourites, Villeneuve creates a complicated, in-depth thriller that is at times packed with edge-of-your-seat tension.
Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) are the middle-aged fathers of two families who spend holidays together. After an alcohol-doused Thanksgiving, their youngest daughters are allowed to play in the street, which happens to house a beaten-up campervan. The girls go missing, which causes the launch of a huge man hunt lead by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). The families begin to disintegrate with the mothers Nancy (Viola Davis) and Grace (Maria Bello) suffering from different forms of depression and seeing less and less of their husbands. The police track down the camper van and discover that it is owned by learning-impaired local man called Alex Jones (Paul Dano) who seems unresponsive to any form of interrogation.
From a topic that could easily have been the domain of the low-budget, star vehicle it is Villeneuve’s artistic direction that elevates Prisoners to something rather intriguing. The long, sometimes laborious, sometimes riveting scenes of searching and physical and mental punishment really provide the scope of an investigation of this size. There are parallels with the ideology of the War on Terror, as well as an investigation of the morality of torture and the creation of the monsters that we so malign. There’s far more bubbling beneath the surface than you might suspect for a procedural thriller.
The processes of dealing with grief vary wildly between the characters point of view. Jackman gets the grandstanding fury of a father who failed to protect his family, but the standout is Gyllenhaal, whose Detective Loki is a bundle of nervous twitches and world-wearing eyes who is trying to do his job in the face of increasing hostility, while trying to keep his own personal demons at bay.
slow pacing proves to be problematic as various parts of the narrative begin to drag. There is a sense after the fact that these were to help the audience experience the same thing as the characters and there are plenty of visual and oral clues throughout that in retrospect all point towards its somewhat flakey conclusion. But Prisoners is a broad, sweeping epic framed as a pulp fiction investigation with great performances and more subtext than you might suspect makes it an interesting, if tough-going film.