[This is a re-post of my review from the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival. Prisoners opens tomorrow.]
There’s enough symbolism and religious themes to give Prisoners some weight. There’s enough curiosity to keep its mystery intriguing. Director Denis Villeneuve does slightly more than expected to keep us interested in its segregated storyline where one hand provides the mystery and the other hand provides some semblance. In between is a film that’s far longer than it needs to be but is supported by Roger Deakins’ striking cinematography and a great cast with a standout performance from Hugh Jackman.
Keller (Jackman) and Grace (Maria Bello) Dover are having Thanksgiving dinner at the house of their friends Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) Birch. At one point in the evening, their daughters Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons), respectively, go outside to play. When the girls don’t return, a frantic hunt to find them begins. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) leads an investigation to locate the missing girls and their kidnapper, but with each passing day, the search grows more desperate and so does Keller. In his desperation, he kidnaps and tortures potential suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano) in the hopes of finding Anna. Meanwhile, Loki tries to piece together clues to find the true perpetrator.
Villeneuve works two sides that only cross in a functional manner. Loki is working the nuts and bolts of the investigation, and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s leaves just enough breadcrumbs to keep us pecking along. It’s not a mind-blowing mystery, but it provides a serviceable whodunit to keep us moving along. Since Loki’s emotional investment is kept at a professional distance (he cares but the case isn’t consuming him, and he doesn’t have a personal life to disrupt), it’s up to the Dovers and Birches to remind us of the emotional cost.
Eventually, Grace, Franklin, and Nancy fall into the background, and Keller is driving forward a mad quest to find his daughter. Jackman provides an intense performance showcasing a rage we haven’t seen from the actor before. We’re all familiar with the Wolverine berserker, but Keller’s desperation to find Anna brings forth a fury that is even more terrifying than a character who uses metal claws to impale people. Furthemore, Keller’s actions remind us that there’s a religious undertone to the movie and that when his faith in God is tested, failing the test can lead to horrible consequences.
Nevertheless, the theme, plot, and even Jackman’s performance aren’t enough to sustain a two-and-a-half hour thriller. That’s when Roger Deakins carries the picture. Deakins is one of the best cinematographers of all time. His work is more than eye-candy—it’s effective. It’s not about the prettiest composition (although his compositions are fantastic) but finding a visual approach that draws us in whereas another director of photography may have gone for the path of least resistance or perhaps something pretty but vapid. Early in the film when Loki spots a suspicious RV during a rainstorm, Deakins paints a vivid picture as silhouettes wield flashlights that cut through a dark and stormy night. The shot conveys the dread and obfuscation that will come to define the story.
Prisoners needs the boost Deakins provides. It’s a thriller that doesn’t feel bloated as much as it overly indulges the plot of a slightly above-average mystery. It loads up on the technical aspects, a talented cast, and checks off boxes to gussy up its genre trappings. There’s nothing wrong with trying to excel at the expected rather than transcend it, but Villeneuve’s embellishments are mostly superficial. They make for a moderately compelling mystery, a moderately thoughtful drama, and a moderately successful effort.