In his debut English speaking film, director Denis Villeneuve teams up with Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal to deliver a truly nail biting thriller. Frederick Latty gives his verdict on Prisoners, one of 2013’s most suspenseful screen outings, and discovers how it has resuscitated a dying genre.
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Running Time: 153 mins
Released: Out now
David Fincher has a lot to answer for. With Se7en, the Oscar nominated director established himself as a master of the contemporary psychological thriller, opening the floodgates for a stream of imitators in his wake. While the majority failed to fill their pioneer’s shoes, the film set the tone for bleak morality tales that have become a staple of the genre ever since.
With Prisoners, French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve may well have delivered the closest thing yet to a worthy successor. Once linked to the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale and Mark Wahlberg, the film now sees Hugh Jackman in the lead role as Keller Dover, a desperate father whose daughter goes missing. He’s forced to take matters into his own hands as the ensuing investigation, led by Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), unravels fruitlessly as time ticks away.
First off, let’s set the record straight; Taken, this ain’t. At first glance, the plot might fail to captivate, particularly in light of the questionable title and formulaic, tiresome trailer. But with its haunting atmosphere and glacially slow pace, this is a thriller of considerably more substance and subtlety.
Clocking in at just over two and a half hours, the film’s leisurely tempo works in its favour; like the aforementioned Fincher’s more recent Zodiac (also starring Gyllenhaal) as well as other modern crime dramas such as Ben Affleck’s directorial debut, Gone Baby Gone, the story is allowed to develop at its own pace, unapologetic and immensely rewarding for those willing to stay the course.
Displaying an honest brutality and aggression, Jackman infuses Keller with a level of realism distinctly lacking in Neeson’s outing, while Gyllenhaal gives an equally strong portrayal of Loki, despite being held back by his character’s cliched story arc. Fortunately, a never better Paul Dano as prime suspect Alex Jones is deliciously creepy, his soft, docile tones and vulnerable complexity as appealing as they are unsettling, while Oscar winner Melissa Leo is on similarly top form.
Perhaps the film’s strongest asset, however, is its overall feel. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s terrific score, coupled with acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins’ steely grey tones of a perpetually overcast suburbia, serve to create a beautifully dismal world in which resolution is at no point suggested, let alone guaranteed.
The violence is certainly gruesome and hard to swallow at times, but it is far from gratuitous. Of course, the film raises its fair share of morally skewed questions, but refrains from forcing the answers down its audience’s throats. Instead, the issue of how far is too far when it comes to protecting one’s family is merely posed – whether or not Keller’s actions are justifiable is a decision left entirely up to viewers.
While it may never match up to the likes of Fincher’s macabre masterpiece, Prisoners is nonetheless a welcome reminder that the modern thriller is far from dead. Eerie, tense and relentlessly gripping, it is bound to provoke debate, speculation and divisive opinion in the cinema car park – just as every great film that dares to pose the questions its viewers daren’t ask should do.
Verdict – 4 stars
A dark, stark and atmospheric thriller, Prisoners is a surprisingly fresh spin on a tired genre. Whereas the more restless cinemagoer might be put off by its lengthy running time and lack of action, those with a little more patience will almost definitely reap the benefits by the time the credits roll.
Prisoners can be seen at the Trinity Theatre, Tunbridge Wells on Sunday November 24. www.trinitytheatre.net