Without a doubt, Denis Villeneuve is one of Hollywood’s hottest directors right now. A critical darling, he has spawned a successful crime franchise with 2015’s Sicario, crafted Oscar-winning sci-fi with Arrival, and even helmed the long-awaited sequel to Blade Runner in last year’s Blade Runner 2049. But before all of this, Villeneuve crafted a small-scale but highly tense missing-person thriller in Prisoners, which deserves far more recognition than it gets.
The easiest comparison to make with Prisoners is David Fincher’s 2014 thriller Gone Girl, but despite existing within the same sub-genre, comparisons end here. While the latter focuses more on personal vendettas and a twisted revenge plan, the trajectory of Prisoners‘ plot is arguably more straightforward, but by no means inferior. What begins as a traditional missing-persons case takes a really interesting direction, and while some may think a 150-minute running time may be unnecessary for a film like this, it perfectly fills the time. Prisoners is less about the case, but rather the toll it takes on those affected, and the lengths people will go to seek justice – or their version of justice, at least.
Justice is a very pertinent theme that’s handled excellently in Prisoners, conveyed through the two extremes of Hugh Jackman’s grief-stricken father Keller Dover and Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki. Both leads are fantastic, and their on-screen chemistry, particularly when they come to blows, is electric. The parallels between the two are fascinating, and the gripping downward spiral of both characters as the case balloons out of control is anchored by such strong performances. Most harrowing of all are the scenes in which Dover and Terrence Howard’s Birch hold a suspect captive, scenes that are impossibly bleak and truly affecting, yet stunningly executed. It’s impossible to choose a standout performance here: Jackman opts for an aggressive, unhinged take while Gyllenhaal encapsulates a good-cop struggling to hold it together in such a tough case.
The only issue with characterisation here is a few script issues. On the whole, the screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski is strong, especially in its handling of the script’s third act, which takes a number of genuinely thrilling turns that are some of the most nail-biting and intense as this genre is capable of. That said, the descent of Jackman’s Dover into a torturous borderline-psychopath could’ve been conveyed better, especially in the film’s opening stages. Commendably, the first act takes its time, but within this should’ve been more of a suggestion that Dover is capable of such unhinged actions, and a greater indication of the lengths he would go for his family.
Despite this nitpick, there’s very little wrong with Prisoners, mainly thanks to its tight, character-driven and truly gripping story. The third act in particular is absolutely fascinating, aided to no end by the stunning cinematography from esteemed DP Roger Deakins. Prisoners is beautiful to look at, with the snowy landscapes and hazy morning establishing shots providing a stunning backdrop for the gruesome adult tale that unfolds.
While the film ends on a very bleak – and arguably underwhelming – note, this is but a small misstep in a plot that takes viewers on a veritable journey of crooked justice, brutal acts of revenge and emotional turmoil. Anchored by potentially career-best performances from Jackman and Gyllenhall, Prisoners is a fascinating and unique thriller that sits perfectly in the gleaming cinematography of Denis Villeneuve.