Prisoners: Taut Thriller

Opens Sep 20

Canadian director Denis Villeneuve makes a splashy English-speaking debut with Prisoners, a taut and compelling thriller that’s extremely well-acted by its two leads, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

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Villeneuve is still best known for the 2010 Oscar-nominated Incendies, but his reputation and stature are likely to increase when Prisoners is released theatrically by Warner on September 20. The film was received extremely well by critics and audiences at the Telluride and Toronto Film Fests.

Villeneuve has crafted a twisty crime drama that’s effective as a procedural thriller, while not neglecting some more serious moral and ideological issues. End result is a riveting genre picture that is personalized by Villeneuve’s various touches.

Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a working-class (carpenter) Pennsylvanian father with strong, perhaps even paranoid survival instincts. Early on, he tells his son (Dylan Minnette): “It gets to a point where the only thing standing between you and another person is you. Be ready!” Just watch the contents of his house-basement, which is filled to capacity with emergency provisions, such as guns, gas masks, even Crisco. A God-fearing family man, Keller is married to Grace (Maria Bello) and they are parents to Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), age 6.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays the lead detective Loki, a spiritual man, brought up in a Catholic orphanage, who’s grown into a mysterious man, now sporting religious tattoos and rings.

The two men are in many ways opposites. The relentlessly aggressive Keller is prepared for the strike of the worst disaster possible, which soon materializes in the kidnapping of his young daughter along with another child, who belongs to his neighbor.

The evidence is shaky, but Keller is motivated by instincts and the kind of anger that calls for action. Thus, upon meeting the young suspect Alex (Paul Dano), Keller is convinced of Alex’s guilt.

Loki tries to calm the family with platitudes and reassurances. But Loki’s methodical strategy to the investigation, which gets more difficult due to the changing weather conditions, only fuels Keller’s frustration and rage.

During Thanksgiving, Anna wanders off with Joy, the 7-year-old daughter of their friends Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis and Terrence Howard), and both girls disappear without trace.

Scribe Aaron Guzikowski, who previously penned the Mark Wahlberg actioner Contraband, makes an impressive leap forward as writer of this tense, intense, edge-of-your-seat crime fiction, which is strong in plot as well as characterizations.

More ambitious than Villeneuve’s previous efforts, including his 2009 Polytechnique, which also deals with crime (mass killing), Prisoners raises such relevant issues as guilt, revenge, and redemption, but handles them in a rather ambiguous way so that viewers can make up their mind (The movie almost forces you to take stance).

Thematically, and in its dark and grim tonality, the film bears resemblance to David Fincher’s Seven and Zodiac and the two good screen adaptations of Lehane’s books, Eastwood’s Mystic River and Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone.

The resolution to the kidnap mystery offers a relief, but it is a bit of a let-down, considering the gripping, occasionally nail-biting text that precedes it.

Ace cinematographer Roger Deakins, known for his consistently evocative imagery for the Coen brothers, adds another panel to his distinguished body of work with varied lighting and color that reflect the changing textures and moods of a typical small, religious town.

Ultimately, the key to the film’s success is its sustained tension, but not merely as a shock technique but also as a process invested with moral significance.