TELLURIDE FILM FEST
Telluride 2013: Denis Villeneuve's 'Prisoners' is Chilling & Enthralling
by Alex Billington
September 2, 2013
A new crime thriller in the pantheon of acclaimed favorites like Zodiac, Se7en and even Silence of the Lambs has arrived. And it's surprisingly as great as those films. It has been a few years since Aaron Guzikowski's kidnapping screenplay Prisoners earned a top spot on the industry Black List. After changing different director's hands for years in development, French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve (of Incendies) got the job to bring the story to life and has delivered a very chilling, Fincher-esque, visually sleek mystery-suspense-thriller. Boasting one hell of an ensemble cast, and running over two hours long, the riveting plot in Prisoners deserves the adjective brilliant for all the twists and turns that lead lead to the final moment.
Prisoners tells the story of two families that experience a harrowing kidnapping. On a quiet Thanksgiving afternoon, their two young daughters suddenly disappear. They are nowhere to be found without any hints of struggle. With the ticking clock activated, the mothers (played by Maria Bello and Viola Davis) lose control of all their emotions and breakdown, while the fathers (played by Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard) begin searching on their own. Local police detective Loki (played by Jake Gyllenhaal) takes on the case and the plot suddenly shifts to his perspective, following him closely as he tries to put together what little clues there are, find the girls alive and safe, all without the parents' desperation getting out of control.
There are subtle clues hidden throughout, but on the first viewing, most moviegoers won't pick up on all the details even though they're there. While a running time of almost 160 minutes seems daunting, Villeneuve carefully weaves a gripping narrative that won't have you once looking at your watch or wondering how far along it is. Which is an impressive feat considering he cuts out a large amount of the procedural details and moments of grief (scenes which have already been explored in countless other movies before) leaving just the captivating "who took them and where are they being kept?" mystery as the most important part of the experience. But that's only the beginning in terms of the brilliance of this script and what it's examining.
Without saying too much, Prisoners becomes an interesting self-reflective lesson in violence and our overly-reactive human nature. It's both painful and oddly invigorating to watch one man hunt down and torture the person he believes responsible for kidnapping his daughter. He has enough clues, or so he thinks, even if the police don't believe them, and that's all one person needs to cross their own moral boundaries just to get an answer. The screenplay explores those moral boundaries and the way we all misread and confuse situations and other people, even when we shouldn't. I was consistently impressed by every new twist and suspenseful turn in the plot, and was completely lost in the story unable to even process what happened until it ended.
Special commendation needs to be given to cinematographer Roger Deakins, who drives the story and the mystery with some of his shots, pushes, zooms and pans (along with Jóhann Jóhannsson's score). There's a few car chase scenes, one in particular in the second half, on snowy roads in rural Pennsylvania that are as thrilling as big action scenes in summer blockbusters. That's not to say this movie is too glossy or too sleek, but his camera work enhances the experience to such a drastic degree it just wouldn't be the same without his stellar cinematography. Deakins will get even more awards acclaim for this, there's no doubt about that.
For no real reason, I wasn't expecting too much going into this, but I am happy to report that it's actually an outstanding film. It is by no means flawless and while the Zodiac comparisons are apt, it's not particularly as detailed and engrossing as David Fincher's serial killer film. That said, this is no throwaway thriller, it's a brilliant mystery that will be remembered. More than anything, the movie succeeds thanks to Villeneuve's excellent direction of Guzikowski's script, and a cast that really gives it their all. Prisoners is a great exercise in telling a compelling story that runs two hours and yet keeps viewers enthralled up until the final second.
Alex's Telluride Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Follow Alex on Twitter - @firstshowing