Where: Clapham Picture House
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello
Film-makers tackling the harrowing topic of child abduction face a series of tough decisions from script to edit suite. A heavy reliance on weeping parents and empty swings can result in sentimental TV movie cliché, while a dependence on violent revenge and bloody action can render the results silly and unbelievable. With Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve avoids many of the subject matter’s pitfalls to deliver a gripping, intelligent thriller replete with generally solid performances and exceptional, if appropriately bleak cinematography from Roger Deakins.
After his six-year-old daughter disappears with her friend on Thanksgiving Day, Pennsylvania carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) throws himself into helping a huge police hunt led by Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). Police arrest Alex Jones (Paul Dano in excellent, understated form), but have to release him when no evidence of abduction is found in his mobile home, a vehicle the girls had climbed on before they went missing. An outraged Dover confronts the learning-impaired Jones and assaults him outside the smalltown police station where he had been held and in the fracas, Jones whispers what could be a clue to the girls’ location. Distraught and consumed by anger, Dover soon kidnaps Jones and tortures him in his father’s old home, still in need of a promised renovation years after his father’s death. The film, murky and unrelenting throughout, seems to become a grim race. Will the obsessively dedicated Loki find the girls? Or will Jones reveal where they are hidden?
Prisoners grapples extensively with guilt, loss and rage, with Dover shouldering the heaviest burden: a toxic combination of all three. His wife Grace (a torn, depressed Maria Bello) can barely leave her bed, dulled by pills and grief. Meanwhile, his friend Franklin (a measured, calm Terrence Howard) – the father of other abductee child, Joy – becomes complicit in Jones’s torture. Dover doesn’t see himself as a hero, but staunchly believes he must take control of the case himself if the authorities can’t save his daughter.
French-Canadian Villeneuve’s first English film is compellingly complex, punctuated by occasional moments of brutal violence and built on a tense Aaron Guzikowski script. Guzikowski has spoken about his love of The Silence of The Lambs and Se7en and the macabre tone of both seem to influence proceedings. However, it’s a shame that the occasional unlikely twist and gaping plot hole in Prisoners make the film less credible than either those two or Gone Baby Gone, perhaps the best contemporary movie concerning a child abduction story.
In arguably his career-best performance, Jackman provides the acting fireworks in several scenes of (sometimes overcooked) explosive rage and utter despondency, but Gyllenhaal is the film’s stand-out. The archetypal loner-with-a-badge detective who won’t rest until the case is solved is not the most original of roles, but his portrayal is true and resolute.
It’s not based on a startlingly fresh premise but Prisoners proves that careful, smart directing, combined with tough, wily writing and decent performances can comprise an entertaining thriller.