First released in 2013, Prisoners marked director Denis Villeneuve’s English-language debut, and it was a resounding success.
Starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, Prisoners tells the story of the abduction of two six year old girls, and the very different approaches that the police and the girls’ parents take to investigating their disappearance.
Widely considered to be one of the best films of the last decade, Prisoners is an exercise in building tension, and a dark exploration of the murky depths of human despair.
Jackman’s performance as Keller Dover, the father of one of the abducted girls, is a career-best for the Australian star. In the beginning, Keller is a man with a lot of deeply repressed anger, and Jackman’s quiet intensity is vaguely unsettling at first, but when his daughter disappears, this soon brims over into frantic rage mingled with raw, deep-seated pain – something which Jackman is able to make all too real. At times, it’s almost hard to watch Dover’s anguish as his life – and his mind – seems to unravel around him, leading him to make some incredibly questionable choices that force us to ask more than a few difficult questions of ourselves.
As though one outstanding performance wasn’t enough, the movie also stars Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, the man in charge of the investigation into the girls’ disappearance. Gyllenhaal might be known for his ability to bring particularly unstable characters to life, but in Prisoners, he’s very much the voice of reason: balancing his search for the missing girls with his growing concern and suspicion for Dover is at the heart of Gyllenhaal’s performance, and his outbursts of frustration paint an interesting contrast with Dover’s own ‘investigation’.
While the movie’s top-billed stars both deliver truly incredible performances, there’s also an unbelievably strong supporting cast of Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Dylan Minnette, Maria Bello and Melissa Leo. There isn’t a single performance out of place, with Davis and Dano standing out in particular even in their relatively small roles.
With all that said, Prisoners isn’t for everyone. It grapples with some pretty dark subject matter, at times almost unsympathetically; the ongoing themes of child abuse and torture are examined in a clinical manner, and their impact is implied more than shown. To some, it might seem like a callous exploration of every parent’s worst nightmare, but to others, it’s a grasping-at-straws, hope-against-hope narrative designed to be as tense and disturbing as possible.
There’s not a single scene in Prisoners that doesn’t feel authentic, and that’s mostly down to the high-quality acting on display. But it’s also a strangely beautiful film, in spite of its inherent darkness, and it’s impossible not to let it draw you in.
Summary: An uncomfortably tense examination of grief, despair and hope, Prisoners is filled with outstanding performances and cinematography, making for an experience that will stick with you long after the credits roll.