Runtime: 153 minutes
You'll have to look awfully hard to find anything new in a film like Prisoners, the English language debut of Quebec-born filmmaker Denis Villeneuve. As written by Aaron Guzikowski, the film's tale of two missing girls and the search to find them covers its share of well-worn tropes, many of which can be found on one of the many police procedurals currently on TV. Yet thanks to superlative craftsmanship, effective plotting, and top flight performances, Prisoners rises above the average procedural, even though it never quite transcends the genre to achieve true greatness.
As the film opens, we see hear Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) reciting the Lord's Prayer as he and his son lie in wait for a deer to shoot. This immediate juxtaposition of faith and violence (on an innocent subject, no less) will echo throughout the film's tale of desperation, loss, and vigilante justice. On an overcast Thanksgiving Day, the youngest children of the Dovers (Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) go missing. Though twitchy Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) quickly finds potential suspect Alex Jones (Paul Dano), the hunt for the girls has just begun. Frustrated with the police department's inability to find strong evidence, Keller takes matters into his own hands.
All of this takes up no more than the film's first 40 minutes, leaving roughly 110 more. Yet rather than cram the remaining runtime with twists and red herrings, Prisoners finds a smart, and even surprising, balance between the mystery driving the narrative forward, and the character drama that holds it all together. While this makes the narrative less immediately compelling, it allows Prisoners to explore its characters and the repercussions of their actions without having to rush. Rather than try to pull off something we've never seen before, the film simply takes familiar ingredients and executes them with a very sure hand.
There's also the matter of the effort that's been put into the film's look, which does its best to distance itself from the small screen as possible. With its gloomy visual aesthetic and haunting flares of music, Prisoners owes as much to the crime thrillers of David Fincher as it does to TV dramas like Broadchurch and The Killing. Where the film receives a considerable boost is in the lensing from master cinematographer Roger Deakins. With its rainy, wintery suburban settings, there appears to be little room for a movie like Prisoners to have any visual flair. Yet Deakins, with all cylinders firing from start to finish, finds ways of capturing the dreary and plain settings with a level of artistry that feels wholly cinematic, yet never pretentious or distracting.
The cast certainly aren't shirking their duties either. Stacked with talent in every major role, the entire ensemble gives it their all. Even Bello and Davis, whose characters are somewhat underutilized, have moments that they knock out of the park. Dano is effective as well as the mumbly Alex, while Melissa Leo underplays her ambiguous role as the boy's doddering aunt. Of the supporting roster, however, it's Howard who makes the strongest impression. Some of that is due to how the script uses the character, but the actor finds ways of communicating grief and confusion without ever being redundant. As one of the cast members who spends the most time playing off of Jackman, Howard makes his straightforward character a nicely conflicted foil.
Where the acting really shines, however, is in the leading duo of Jackman and Gyllenhaal. The roles are radically different, yet the way they reflect the dual strands of Prisoners' narrative creates a compelling blend of material driven by pure emotion and by pure clinical determination. Jackman, coming off of a career high with Les Miserables, has the emotional side of the story to carry, and the ferocity he brings to the role is never less than gripping. For all of the hysterical yelling involved, the actor never sounds shrill or false. It may not be subtle work, but Jackman invests each growl and yell with a fury that would make even Wolverine cower. On the opposite end of the spectrum is Gyllenhaal, who makes the less emotive role work in his favor. He puts a nervous bit of blinking, though initially distracting, to smart use as a means of communicating the character's internal processing of events.
Behind the scenes, Villeneuve deserves immense credit for his intelligent balance between the emotional and the procedural elements of the story. His previous film, 2010's Oscar-nominated Incendies, marked him as a talent to watch. Though more harrowing than Prisoners, that film also suffered from a messiness that built to a pair of twists that bordered on laughable. Prisoners runs nearly 15 minutes longer than Incendies, but it feels remarkably more focused, despite the room it allows for slow-building drama. Procedural mysteries live or die by how well they pull you in. Even the best of the genre, such as The Silence of the Lambs and Seven, have their implausibilities upon reflection. Yet what makes a great procedural work is its ability to cast a strong enough spell to allow you to suspend your sense of disbelief. Following in the footsteps of those aforementioned films, Prisoners certainly succeeds on that level, albeit with less flash (you'll find no lip-smacking cannibals).
The lone disappointment of Prisoners, however, stems from the very aspect of its script that also makes it a success. By aiming for character-based drama over thrills, the film starts to feel more generic as a whole, despite the first rate filmmaking. There's a tantalizing taste of the more ambitious, possibly pulpier, movie that could have been made in the form of a mysterious maze symbol. You can practically feel Guzikowski contemplating whether or not to take said symbol and use it to turn Prisoners into a denser and more twisted story. Instead, the resolution of the maze, and the main plot, comes across as rather expected, even though it's as well-crafted as everything that precedes it.
In straddling the line between thoughtful character drama and attention-grabbing thriller, Prisoners somewhat robs itself of a sharper identity. In trying to focus more on emotional developments, the film forgets to give itself a memorable stamp. Not content to end with a whimper, however, Prisoners ends (and the sound team deserves kudos here) its somewhat mundane narrative with a brilliant piece of ambiguity. Just when it seems in danger of fading out forgettably, it throws in one last nasty little kick that ensures that it'll stay with you just a little bit longer (Law and Order looks cheerful in comparison). It may not be the next Zodiac, but Prisoners is still an compelling and satisfying mystery with a refreshingly adult look at unsettling subject matter.