I'm having a lot of trouble thinking of a better film to come out in 2013. 'Prisoners' has almost everything going for it: an A list cast and director, a great story, top notch script and boat loads of tension. It fits together as intricately as the maze in its logo, and keeps the viewer on the edge of their seat until the last frame.
This film is successful for all the reasons listed above, but the story itself is the major strength. It is a slow burn style thriller that ramps up the tension in an incredibly palpable way. Starting out as a fairly straightforward abduction story, it quickly escalates into a full fledged frenzy. Twist after turn keeps the audience genuinely unsure of what is going to happen next and where it is heading. This is the ultimate job of a thriller, and this one stays one step ahead at all times. Despite this escalation, it never looses sight of what it wants to accomplish, keeping its focus on its characters and their inner struggles in a very intimate way. The ending is just right, leaving you exactly when it is supposed to.
Its characters are brought to life by some really good performances up and down the cast. Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal turn in performances worthy of being called their career bests. Gyllenhaal in particular throws himself into a very different role than he has played before, and his method acting and body language really sell it. I would cite Jackman for overacting in a few scenes, but he is very good as the father who comes to the uneasy but unapologetic realization that he will do unthinkable things to save his family. It is a very interesting dichotomy to watch someone pushed to that limit, and it leaves you with no real judgment on the morality of his character. The rest of the cast is rounded out by some great supporting performances from solid vets like Leo, Dano, Bello and Howard.
The direction is another extremely strong suit here. If you told me this was directed by David Fincher, I just might believe you. Aside from a very Fincheresque story, the direction is very much his style. Striking high contrast and lack of color saturation almost mimicking black and white photography combine with a masterful use of shot composition and symmetry that really echos Finchers directorial eye. Villeneuve is a director to watch. He's been around awhile, and while isn't particularly prolific I will be keeping an eye out for his future projects.
There are a few minor issues I had with the film. First and foremost is its length. I'm all for a director using as much time as necessary to tell their story exactly the way they want, but I ended up feeling 153 minutes was a little much. I feel a good 15 minutes could have seen the cutting room floor without sacrificing much if anything. Another qualm I had is that after all the pain the villain ends up inflicting, I wanted to see them suffer a bit rather than the quick, arbitrary ending they are given. Is that wrong? Maybe, but I can't say I have any shame in wanting to see such a detestable character get exactly what's coming to them. A few minor issues with pacing slow things down a bit in the middle act as well. These negatives said, they are all very minor complaints that really don't do much to detract from such a great final product.
Considering the overall artistic vision, depth and effectiveness of this film on all fronts, I have to say I am fairly shocked of its lack of critical recognition and fanfare. In my opinion, this was surely deserving of several Oscar nominations and probably wins. Yet, it remains unheralded and relatively unknown to the general public for some reason. But don't let the lack of popular praise fool you: this is a grade A thriller from top to bottom, and I'd place it right at the top of best pictures of the year.