Denis Villeneuve has earned a reputation for making films that require concentration. Villeneuve’s ability to ensure undivided attention is wholly a result of his command over his craft, whether it is in the staging of scenes, the manner in which he directs his actors, or the strong moral compass that guides his themes.
Villeneuve’s love for slow-burning narratives can sometimes curdle into indulgence or, at the very least, humourless heavy-handedness (Exhibit A: Blade Runner 2049 from 2017). In Prisoners (2013), every one of the 153 minutes is well-spent.
Prisoners is available to rent on Apple TV+. The movie revolves around the disappearance of two young girls in an American small town, which leads their fathers into a moral grey zone.
The narrative appears to have ended no sooner than it has begun. The possible kidnapper is nabbed. The dishevelled and discombobulated Alex (Paul Dano) is a textbook weirdo. But police detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds no evidence to link Alex to the abductions.
The father of one of the girls, Keller (Hugh Jackman), begins to man up. Keller’s decision to take the law into his own hands steers Prisoners into vigilante territory, just as Loki’s investigation begins to reveal the limits of unsanctioned justice.
Keller’s ultra-macho, bloodthirsty ways are contrasted with the more conscientious Franklin (Terrence Howard), whose daughter is missing too. Keller goes to pieces when Alex appears to blurt out vital information about the girls. Meanwhile, Loki stumbles upon a wider conspiracy that exposes the secrets hidden in the town.
As Prisoners ambles its way to its solution, the tension is ratcheted up, Roger Deakins’s rich lighting scheme gets ample play, and the actors sparkle too. Jackman is suitably anguished as the raging father, while Paul Dano draws instant empathy. The movie belongs to Jake Gyllenhaal’s terrific Loki, who has a habit of blinking and the inscrutable manner of the man who has seen too much to take things at face value. Gyllenhaal has rarely been this controlled, or this enigmatic.
The plot is so gripping that even the watered-down denouement is forgiven. Villeneuve’s skill at tightening the screws is punctuated by shocking scenes of torture and sudden bursts of momentum. For all the aggression on display – mostly from Keller – this is an unhurried, almost meditative movie, asking us to go along with its reinvention of the vigilante drama while also nudging us to watch closely, and listen too.
The minimal background music cues the ear towards what is being said and heard. In the final scene, it is all down to the hearing. Prisoners retains its ability to be arresting right until the last frame.
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