In 2011, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's "Incendies" received an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Language film. For that, he depicted a family that ventured on a journey of discovery. In "Prisoners", Villeneuve turns his eye to another bleak family drama where 'discovery' is, once again, the driving force behind his characters' motivations.
After a thanksgiving meal, two young girls go missing. The fathers of the girls, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) refuse to accept the procedure of the police in their investigation and take it upon themselves to be very active in the manhunt. When the main suspect (Paul Dano) is released from custody, Keller takes extreme measures in finding the answers to his daughters whereabouts.
Set in a cold, working class, Northwestern town, the look and feel for "Prisoners" is established from the off-set. It's harsh and bleak environment is reflective of the characters that inhabit it and Villeneuve wastes no time in depicting it's grim tale of child abduction. In it's early stages and premise, both of the lead actors reminded me very much of two Sean Penn films: Jackman's tortured father resembled that of Penn's character in "Mystic River" and Gyllenhaal's doggedly determined police officer echoed the work of Jack Nicholson in Penn's marvellous directorial outing "The Pledge". Like these aforementioned films, "Prisoners" benefits from being anchored by these powerful leads. I'm not normally a fan of Jackman but the man cannot be faulted here, in his ferocious turn as a protective father, stricken helpless and with no control over his situation or grief. His furious and emotional outbursts are entirely believable and Gyllenhaal's subtle ticks and repressed display of a very similar character compliments the work of Jackman. On the outskirts, an impressive supporting cast are assembled in Paul Dano; Oscar winner Melissa Leo and Nominees Viola Davis and Terrence Howard, although the very talented likes of Davis and Howard are somewhat wasted in thankless roles that don't utilise their talents to the full.
In capturing the stark environment, cinematographer Roger Deakins delivers some sublime work. In a time of recession, this small town has little or no future and it's grim reality and sense of desperation and paranoia oozes from every pore. Villeneuve also cleverly plays with time; the town has come to a standstill during the investigation and even though every day counts for the grief stricken families, time seems laborious and torturous. The twists and turns of events unfold at their own pace making this, for the most part, a very tight and involving thriller. However, at two and half hours, the film is a little overlong with the final 30 minutes consisting of some tenuous and cliched plot developments and a few too many red herrings but these only stand out because the film is so strong up until then.
A solid and unrelenting thriller that has some uncomfortable moments and an ever shifting moral compass. "Prisoners" is the perfect title in describing the entrapment - in one way or another - of each of the characters but when it comes to the audience, director Villeneuve doesn't take any.