“Prisoners” is an extremely well-made crime procedural thriller, in the vein of films like “Se7en” or “Gone Baby Gone”. I wouldn’t call it particularly original or ambitious, but it’s extremely competently made, with excellent performances, cinematography, and sharp and restrained writing. Like many of director Denis Villeneuve other films, a large part of it hinges on surprise and misdirection, but I feel like there’s more character and thematic work at play with it than with “Enemy” for example.
[Note: The film really does hinge about surprises, so this review will have spoilers. Scroll down to read the spoiler-filled review; I’m putting line breaks in so someone won’t accidentally see spoilers against their will.]
The twist about who the kidnapper really is was well-told, and a compelling turn in the plot, but it was the revelations about her backstory that interested me more than her role in the current narrative, because it had a neat parallel with the journey of the protagonist (played excellently by Hugh Jackman). Jackman’s character kidnapped Paul Dano’s character, mentally a child, who was already currently a kidnapping victim. He entrapped and tortured him for five days, essentially playing the role the old lady villain did to his own daughter. The parallel is disturbing and speaks to what I think is the heart of the film – what does the loss of a child do to parents, how far can it break them and take them?
Roger Deakins did fabulous work here as cinematographer, with the scene of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal’s character) driving the missing daughter to the emergency room being a particular highlight. The rain, the blood, the blurred vision, the lights of the cars, it’s all so immersive and striking. Gyllenhaal’s character was a fascinating one; I liked how so much about him was left untold. He wore a masonic ring, had strange tattoos on his knuckles, had one line about a disturbing childhood…it never amounted to a direct reveal or anything, but implied a lot of interesting things about his character. Jackman was the star of the show though, giving such a powerful, tortured performance as the father of a missing daughter.
The film touches at a lot of themes – how far can and should one go in the pursuit of a noble goal (one could stretch this to a War on Terror analogy I suppose), Christian faith (the spoken prayers, snakes, appeals to God, the shots of Paul Dano’s character locked in the shower resembling a man in a confessional chamber), but never engages with them so strongly as to transcend being the genre piece it is. Not necessarily a bad thing – in many ways I feel like this is a stronger film than “Enemy” because it has a well-told plot and doesn’t overdo the misdirection – but one that does keep it from being at the higher level some of Villeneuve’s other films, like “Arrival” and “Sicario” are. The third act is surprisingly functional, when the second act felt like a more interesting meditation on parental responses to one’s child being kidnapped. The lack of elucidation on the villain’s motivations prevent the film from making a clearer statement connected to its themes. The actual ending ending, as in the very last minutes of the film, surprised me with its restraint though, in a good way. The film had established Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s characters strongly enough we didn’t need to explicitly see Jackman’s survivalism and Gyllenhaal’s sharp intelligence to work out what comes next.
I give the film three whistles, and a bottle of snake venom.