Villeneuve in Retrospect – Prisoners

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Prisoners (2013)
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano

Run Time: 153 minutes

With the release of Arrival edging closer and closer (11th November), it seems an apt time to look back on the work of a director who many may not recognise the name of, but has made an impressive mark on cinema already. His first English language film was Prisoners; a heavy-handed thriller about the mysterious abduction of two young girls. Coming from the man now entrusted with the sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic Blade Runner, this is a film which questions morals, doubt, certainty and, ultimately, the war on Iraq waged by the US. 

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are the centrepieces driving the story forward. The former is the concerned father of one of the young girls, giving an adequate performance to a role that probably deserves more and the latter is a detective, giving an exquisite performance to a role that was probably a whole lot less interesting in the printed script. 

Fundamentally, this is an excellent movie shot by the wonderful Roger Deakins. Deakins furthers his reputation in Prisoners as he provides cinematography that manages to be completely and captivatingly beautiful, whilst simultaneously reflecting the dreary and miserable tones and themes of the story. The quiet suburban town is buried beneath grey skies and suffocated by cold air and at times drowned in torrential downpour. It’s a town that mirrors the attitudes of the American people and the people all around them across the globe. It complements and reinforces the questions of both the actions of the real-life USA and the actions of those within the film.

This film is not for the faint-hearted either. It’s hard to respond to the idea of innocent children being kidnapped and not knowing for one second whether they are dead, alive or somewhere worse in between the two. What happens when you throw in an angry man taking matters into his own hands, via the kidnapping and violent interrogation of someone who may or may not be innocent? It could be too much for some.

Yet it is exactly that which makes Prisoners stand out. A story like this regularly crops up in literature, cinema and other forms of entertainment and within, a heroic character exists who courageously and valiantly figures it all out. Here, the hero is neither valiant nor heroic and we aren’t allowed for a second to sit and say that we approve of how he is getting to the answers. Jackman does only give an adequate performance, since for the most part he yells “Where’s my daughter?” at the top of his lungs and gives people angry looks. Angry looks that he’s mastered over the last sixteen or more years in his ongoing role as Wolverine in the X-Men franchise. This isn’t to say he brings the film down; he’s absolutely fine. Gyllenhaal, on the other hand, is exceptional. His character is forced into submitting to the cliché once or twice, but his performance makes up for it. He’s a man determined to solve the case, and we love him for it even through the ambiguity of who he wants to solve it for (he’s never failed to solve a case handed to him).

Having said all these nice things, the script does come out lazy sometimes. For some, the twists and turns are not all that surprising and a couple of red herrings might scream out to aficionados of these kind of movies. Beyond that, Gyllenhaal’s character is advertised as some brilliant detective and we are tricked into believing it. Throughout the film, on reflection, he does not really do all that much, but rather jumps through clues that any man with his eyes open and an awareness of suspicious activity could follow. It might have been nice if the script had proven his prowess in his field, rather than just leaving us to assume it’s true.

But when all is said and done, Prisoners may not be a perfect film. Not by a long shot. Decent thrillers have become hard to come by and this one shoots past the “decent” mark like lightning. True, it stops a fair way short of a “classic” status that will ensure it’s remembered in one or two decades time, but the ride Villeneuve takes you on is worth buying a ticket for.