Alex Jones: They didn’t cry until I left them.
PRISONERS marks both a great departure and an even greater triumph for filmmaker, Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES). Not only is it his first Hollywood feature, after making three widely celebrated films in his native home of Quebec, Canada, but he does so without actually sacrificing any of the intensity that made his previous works so wonderful and distinct. Stemming from an incredibly dense screenplay from novice writer, Aaron Guzikowski (CONTRABAND), PRISONERS is a dark and captivating thriller that is as twisted as it is thrilling to watch. Audiences will surely be disturbed by the subject matter but in the best way imaginable. And when they’re done watching, they will have borne witness to Villeneuve’s emergence as one of the next great Hollywood directors.
The film opens on Thanksgiving Day, in a small American town, where two families have come together to feast. The celebration is short lived though as the youngest daughter in each family, each aged about 8, disappears without explanation. While the parents are out looking for the young girls, police detective, Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), zeros in on his prime suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). All signs point to Alex but the police let him go the next day because there isn’t sufficient evidence to hold him. This infuriates one of the girl’s fathers (Hugh Jackman, in yet another fine, commanding turn as a leading dramatic actor) and he decides to take matters into his own hands by kidnapping Alex and subsequently torturing him until he gets the answers he wants from him. Of course, none of this is as simple as this description suggests but this is what makes Guzikowski’s screenplay so strong. It takes the viewer in consistently unexpected directions and forces you to ask hard questions that don’t have easy answers. It was so dense in fact that I thought it had to be based on a great novel while I was watching it.
Essentially, from the moment the kidnapping first takes place, every character in PRISONERS becomes something of a prisoner themselves to the situation at hand. How can a parent, as exemplified here with pain and power by Jackman, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Maria Bello, do anything other than look for and worry for their child until they are found? And while Alex is more of a literal prisoner, even characters like Detective Loki and Alex’s mother (Melissa Leo) are tightly tethered to the case without any hope of moving forward until it is closed for good. But when a child goes missing and no body is found, then nothing is ever over. There is always a chance they could return and, as unwaveringly bleak as PRISONERS can be at times, that hope, that tiny, little sliver of hope, is always present. I implore you to be brave enough to see PRISONERS. You will emerge with a freer mind for having done so.
Also, in case you missed it, click here for my TIFF13 interview with Denis Villeneuve, who also directed ENEMY, with Jake Gyllenhaal.