By Jake Howell firstname.lastname@example.org
The Torontonian Reviews PRISONERS
Rarely does a director have two films at one festival, and a year or two from now, it might be that 2013 was Denis Villeneuve’s start to directing celebrity. Here in Toronto with not one but two films starring Jake Gyllenhaal (Prisoners and Enemy have debuted with much buzz), the French-Canadian director is fast on his way to being a known quantity in the United States.
Prisoners resembles the likes of your above-average beach read (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), and the mystery unfolds in a similar way. The universally understood hook—the sudden disappearance of two small girls—takes hold almost immediately, capturing our attention with stomach-churning horror. The run-time teeters at two and a half hours, so there are red herrings, deductions, and interrogations that emerge before the grand reveal of where these girls are and what has happened to them. But it’s hard to look away or quickly hop to the washroom, as every scene holds a piece of the puzzle.
An unspoiled viewing of the film is so completely engrossing that every little clue or tidbit rattles and teases us. But the best mystery films are often those that withstand repeated viewings, for we watch these movies again and again to revisit how expertly handled each revelation is and how the characters react to them. Prisoners is this kind of mystery movie, though some may find its meaty length to be tolerable only once. Perhaps, but the title of the film is just as thematic as it is literal, and there is much to analyze here.
Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard play the fathers of the missing girls, while Maria Bello and Viola Davis are their respective wives. “How far would you go?” asks the film’s tagline, which speaks to the desperation of distraught Keller Dover (Jackman). When Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) struggles to find answers in that critical first week of the kidnapping, Keller takes matters into his own hands, using unethical approaches to gain new information. A prime suspect (Paul Dano) becomes the focus of Keller’s attention, and what happens next is a morality test for everyone involved (the audience included). Jackman and Gyllenhaal make some excellent dramatic turns here, and the cast in general feels pitch-perfect. Similarly, while Dano’s mentally challenged character says very little, his facial expressions do not.
Writer Aaron Guzikowski has also woven some Christian overtones into the script, which may both divide and intrigue audiences. The film opens on a wintry forest scene: a deer stands majestically in the woods, and the camera pulls back slowly before revealing the end of a rifle. The Lord’s Prayer is narrated by Jackman’s character before the deer falls, providing venison for Thanksgiving dinner. The film has many moments like these featuring overt Christian themes, though I found they only added to the three-dimensionality of the morals in flux. It rounds out the film nicely, adding an extra layer of character development to the players in this story of small-town America.
There are so many directors who could take this script and do a decently crafted job of it, but hopefully some readers remember 2010’s impeccable Incendies, Canada’s foreign-language entry for the 2011 Academy Awards. That film was exemplary in proving Villeneuve’s restraint and mastery of pace, but its box office numbers make it clear Villeneuve has yet to reach the amount of eyeballs his work deserves. Prisoners has the strength and profile to significantly boost Villeneuve’s international visibility, because the director has shown he is just as capable with a studio budget as he is with an independent one. He simply doesn’t let the film’s sprawl get away from him, and the final product is exquisitely cohesive.
When it is released, Prisoners will be popular because of its narrative accessibility, its unpretentious approach to sensitive and artistic filmmaking, and its A-list cast that fires on all cylinders. The film is great and totally worthy of a major splash, and if you enjoy Prisoners in a big way, I implore you to go back to Incendies for more. Villeneuve is breaking through, and this realized potential is great for all movie fans—not just those interested in Canadian film.