Denis Villeneuve received a lot of attention for his science fiction films Arrival and Blade Runner 2049, and anticipation for his upcoming adaptation of Dune is at a fever-pitch. It’s his 2013 thriller Prisoners, however, which best showcases his strong directorial talent. Without the benefit of those other films’ lavish production design, it simply tells a bold and emotionally gutting story of kidnapping, revenge, and murder. It does so sensationally, transforming it into arguably the best thriller of its type since David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007).
On 4 July, two girls vanish without a trace from a family party. While the police soon have a suspect in the kidnapping, he is released without charge. One girl’s desperate father (Hugh Jackman) decides to take matters into his own hands and test the suspect’s innocence for himself.
Prisoners depicts a pitch-black cycle of violence, and it is presented in a deliberate fashion to both confront and challenge its audience. It is an emotionally gruelling experience, packed with a cast of fallible and conflicted people. Good people wind up doing very bad things. It is bold enough to shock the viewer with the horrifying results of violence, but it is also wise enough to only do it sparingly. This is a disturbing film, but it is never a gratuitous one.
The film showcases a near career-best performance by Jackman, who usually shifts back and forth between his two personas: musical theatre and Wolverine. Here he plays Keller Dover, a man packed with pent-up masculinity and violence issues. When he is frustrated he lashes out. When he is unable to directly find his daughter and hunt down her abductor he goes stir-crazy. When he does finally choose to take matters into his own hands, it comes with an inevitable sense of tragedy. You feel for Dover’s predicament, but are powerless from preventing one needless bad choice after another.
Dover’s wife Grace (Maria Bello) is, of course, almost entirely excluded from his rage, and his growing absence from home leaves her alone to emotionally collapse. Bello gives a heartfelt and painful performance that fills out a gap that many thrillers leave open: the human cost to survivors. Similarly strong work is done by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as Franklin and Nancy Birch, the parents of the other kidnapped girl. They have their own particular reactions and emotion journeys, and collectively all three characters add a welcome layer of emotion to the story.
The supporting cast are almost uniformly excellent, including Jake Gyllenhall’s frustrated police detective Loki – forced to effectively compete with Dover to solve the crime, Paul Dano’s mentally challenged kidnapping suspect Alex Jones, and Melissa Leo as his elderly adoptive mother. Even small roles are well filled and performed, including Wayne Duvall’s tired police captain and David Dastmalchian as a potential second suspect.
While there is a crime for the audience to solve, and a string of suspenseful developments and sequences, it is the overall tone that makes Prisoners so effective. There is a level of bleakness to Villeneuve’s film that one usually only sees in the film cultures of Japan and South Korea – a willingness to take a narrative one step further than its audience might be comfortable taking. It is powerfully uncomfortable stuff.