TIFF13: Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners is the kind of thriller that has the potential to astound audiences if they don’t let the dark subject matter deter them from seeing it in the first place. French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, best known for the dark dramas Polytechnique and Incendies (both films I unfortunately haven’t seen), makes his American debut here and it’s the work of a remarkably accomplished filmmaker. Tonal control, strong performances, a gorgeous camera that knows what to look at when, tight plotting with strong thematic concerns driving the characters — the comparisons some people have made to the work of Bong Joon-ho and David Fincher, two of the best genre directors in the world, are not unfounded.

Prisoners centres around child abduction, the kind of plot element that would scare away most parents. On Thanksgiving, the daughters of two couples (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bellow, and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) go missing and the families panic. The stoic detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) investigates and for the rest of the film we follow him as he pieces together the puzzle of their disappearance while the families cope with the tragedy in their various ways.

Using child abduction can be an easy way to manipulate an audience into uneasiness and emotional frailty, but Prisoners is never manipulative. In the moments when it could be most dishonest, Villeneuve cuts away or lets a static camera allow the actor’s emotions to tell the story for him.

There’s a particular scene in a bathroom where Jackman and Howard question a potential suspect and Villeneuve lets the material breathe in a way that ratchets up the tension in unexpected ways. The camera stays in the doorway, impartially watching the scene unfold, letting Jackman’s screams of rage do most of the work in the scene. It’s a devastating moment, with such a potential for violence that the audience is dreading the actions of the protagonists even while our sympathies are still squarely aligned with them.

Like all good genre films, Prisoners is plot-heavy, but it lets its theme work through the heavily orchestrated events. The characters actions all speak to the films themes of morality and desperation. And it’s a terrifically acted film to boot. This is arguably Hugh Jackman’s best work to date, and Jake Gyllenhaal further cements himself as once of the most compelling leading men in Hollywood.

Prisoners is not perfect. One of the later twists seemed strangely motivated at the time of the viewing, even if it works into its thematic concerns. But it is gorgeously shot, strongly felt thrillmaking. It asks tough questions about human nature while delivering a riveting 146 minutes of dark entertainment. I was reminded of The Silence of the Lambs while watching it, and that’s high praise indeed.

8 out of 10

Prisoners (2013, USA)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve; written by Aaron Guzikowski; starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, and Paul Dano.

Prisoners plays on Sept. 13 during the Toronto International Film Festival in the Special Presentations program.