“Prisoners” is one heck of a harrowing, exhausting experience. It pulls no punches, makes no concessions of comfort for the viewer and provides hardly any respite from its darkness. It is one of the most difficult films I’ve ever watched. It is also without any doubt one of the year’s best.
How can a film that feels more like an endurance test be considered entertainment? Well, it’s not. It’s more akin to a sociological essay, an examination of how something as pure as parental instincts can become perverted. It also takes a long hard look at whether the ends justify the means, and the different ways in which we cope with tragedy. For those of us with families of our own, “Prisoners” will resonate far more deeply. In fact, it’ll probably play like a horror film. The premise of child abduction is certainly horrifying in an uncomfortably real way. Sadly, our local newspapers are littered with far too many incidents of missing children. I for one, found the idea of losing a loved one so thoroughly dependent on you to unseen predators extremely chilling, and it’s the kind of fear that goes beyond the self. The realisation that you’ve failed in your fundamental duty to protect must be crushing, and that ugliness is something the film explores quite thoroughly.
The great thing is that it’s never exploitative or manipulative. Whatever you’re seeing up there on screen feels like it comes from a place of honesty. This is especially so for the performances, which as far as I’m concerned, are awards-worthy. Raw emotion, thy name is Hugh Jackman. He plays a blue-collar family man in a small American town, a regular guy with a regular life. Until his daughter is kidnapped along with his best friend’s child. Through the course of the story, Jackman goes from stoic, to frantic, to borderline psychotic. The Aussie actor gets a lot of praise for the Berserker rage he brings to his comicbook anti-hero Wolverine. But that’s nothing compared to what he displays here. I’m not sure it’s even a display at all. There were moments when his anger seemed so visceral, so palpable, that I wondered if he’d ceased acting and actually felt those feelings. All good actors tap into some dark part of themselves when they play roles like these, and I’m very curious to know if there were any personal demons Jackman summoned within himself. Whatever the case, he is incredible to watch.
On the flip side, there is Jake Gyllenhaal. An actor I’ve never quite warmed up to thanks to his generally mopey demeanor no matter the role. Yet here, Gyllenhaal is impressive. His performance here is masterfully low-key without being opaque or dull. Even his character’s name subtly suggests his nature (Detective Loki. Low-key. Geddit?). Aside from an obvious actorly tic — constant eye twitching — Gyllenhaal conveys a righteous, quietly-driven man whose anger at the injustices of the world is kept boiling just beneath the surface. When he finally explodes, the effect is suitably stirring. The two leads make a pretty effective counterpoint to each other.
The rest of the cast does fine work too. Maria Bello as Jackman’s screen wife has a couple of powerful scenes that chart her emotional disintegration. Paul Dano continues to build on his portfolio of weirdos, though this one is surprisingly sympathetic. Melissa Leo (barely recognisable under old age make-up) only gets to make an impression towards the end, where things suddenly get exposition-heavy. Only Terrence Howard and Viola Davis are somewhat under-utilised, even if they do have a sprinkling of touching scenes.
It’s easy to see why a project like this attracted so many respected actors. The writing leaps off the page, despite its sometimes convenient and pedestrian plot. Every character is given a dramatically meaty moment, acting-wise. And Aaron Guzikowski’s dialogue sharply (though bleakly) observes some human frailties, like the way grief coping mechanisms are externalised.
“Prisoners” is a true collaborative effort, in that everything from the acting to the screenwriting, to the production design and cinematography, to the direction comes together to create something special. At face value, this is an unremarkable story set in an unmemorable place. Yet director Denis Villeneuve expertly pulls all the elements together, making the mundanity the whole point. He’s essentially portraying how evil can manifest itself in the most ordinary of settings. That’s what makes it so scary. Cinematographer Roger Deakins adds a lot to the experience. His eye for striking compositions gives the drab rural location an odd beauty, both oppressive and mournful at the same time. As a French-Canadian, Villeneuve brings more than a little European sensibility to his filmmaking. Which means he’s into symbolism (mazes feature prominently, to convey the lost state of the characters), and the pacing is unhurried. But at no point does the film let go of its audience. From the moment you’re invested in the plight of these characters, you’ll be held captive right up to the very end. It’s intense and thrilling without having to rely on shootouts or car chases.
Villeneuve chooses to end the film on an optimistic note (no, that’s not a spoiler). While something that neatly wrapped up the themes and the meaning of the title would’ve been intellectually satisfying, I’m glad he went with satisfying us emotionally instead. For all its immersion into the worst of human nature, at its heart this also is about hope. Besides, after such an exhausting journey, the audience deserves to be rewarded. “Prisoners” ultimately rewards on so many levels.