Coming after his much lauded, and Oscar nominated, Incendies, all eyes are on Prisoners’ director Denis Villeneuve to see if he can repeat the trick of making an engaging drama mystery for a more mainstream audience. With the aid of an all star cast and, arguably, the finest cinematographer currently plying his trade, Prisoners is not short of ways of keeping you captive, but does it do enough to whisk you away to dark and dangerous places?
When two girls go missing during Thanksgiving celebrations fathers Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard), after scouring the neighbourhood for the kids, call the police while their wives (Mario Bello and Viola Davis) try to keep calm. The only evidence Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to go on is a mysterious RV that was hanging around at the time of the girls’ disappearance. When the vehicle is tracked down, its owner Alex (Paul Dano) tries to run. But after questioning Alex, Loki is no closer to finding the missing girls. Angry, and convinced of Alex’s guilt, Keller takes matters into his own hands and will stop at nothing to find his daughter.
Fraught, atmospheric and often painfully tense, Prisoners has all the credentials to be a must see and discuss at length crime thriller. Villeneuve injects genuine chills into proceedings and ably supported by Roger Deakins’ mesmerising visuals. Aesthetically it feels akin to David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac. Tonally it’s in the same bracket as Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone and certainly has moments to rival all those films for the level of nail-chewing tension.
The issues arise in Prisoners’ running time. After the initial set-up the film begins to lag, never progressing the plot and when it does only opening up more mysteries as opposed to answering questions. Remember how you used to feel at the end of each episode of Lost, it’s like that, but on a smaller scale. Rather than focusing on some genuine interesting character dynamics the film gets lost in a maze of its own contraption. Numerous red herrings not only sidetrack the investigation but frustrate the interest levels. By the time the mystery is finally unravelled you’re left exhausted, but probably not in the way the filmmakers intended.
It would be preferable to delve deeper into Loki and Franklin’s motives and differing determination to unravel the mystery. We’re told early on that Loki has never failed to solve a case, yet such an interesting premise is never really raised again. Franklin meanwhile is determined to find his daughter, never doubting that she’s still alive. So while his wife turns to pills and languishes in bed, he goes all vigilante on us to interesting effect but never stops to ask the question; “have I got the right guy?”
The performances are all solid. Bello and Davis are frustratingly sidelined after the opening act, which leaves you wanting more of their maternal instinct to play on your emotional investment in the plot. Howard is reliable but never more than a supporting role. Dano is just the right combination of creepy and vulnerable while Melissa Leo as his aunt wreaks of too-good-a-casting to be such a small role. Jackman turns in one of his more emotionally fused performances, making Franklin a father-like Wolverine desperate to find his missing cub. But the film rests on the reliable shoulders of Jake Gyllenhaal. His inked-up Loki feels like something straight out of a Denis Lehane novel, a man who if he weren’t a cop would most likely be on the other side of the law. The script doesn’t allow for much development in the character but Gyllenhaal manages to find enough moments of nuance to lend the film a moral hook.
Plot and running time issues aside, Prisoners is nonetheless a film that grips you into its paint-peeling, dank and dirty world.