Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Genre: Drama, Thriller
Run Time: 152 mins
We’ve seen many examples of the “Papa Wolf” archetype in cinema over the years, a character who transforms into an unstoppable force of nature after his child is hurt, kidnapped or otherwise threatened, making the offenders wish they’d never crossed him. In films such as Ransom, John Q, the recent Snitch and of course Taken, fathers have leapt into the fire in the name of ensuring the well-being of their kids. Hugh Jackman now joins the ranks in this mystery thriller.
Jackman plays Keller Dover, a carpenter and repairman in the small town of Conyers, Pennsylvania. On Thanksgiving, Keller, his wife Grace (Bello), son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) and daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) go over the house of Franklin Birch (Howard) and family for dinner. Afterwards, they discover that Anna, along with Franklin’s daughter Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) is missing. Police detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) leads the investigation; a mentally handicapped young man named Alex Jones (Dano), cared for by his aunt Holly (Leo), seemingly involved. Keller is convinced of Alex’s guilt and takes matters into his own hands, repeatedly clashing with Loki as the days tick past with no sign of Anna or Joy in sight.
If the synopsis makes Prisoners sound like Taken but with Hugh Jackman, be informed that it really isn’t. While Taken was a straight-up action flick with Liam Neeson blasting a path of vengeance through Paris as the audience cheers him on, Prisoners is a thriller of the “glued to your seat with shivers down your spine” variety. The film marks the English-language debut of Québécoise director Denis Villeneuve, whose film Incendies was a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar contender. Prisoners is a tightly directed piece, a sense of foreboding established early on.
The film plays out in a realistic small town setting; bleak, dreary and constantly raining. Multiple Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins of The Shawshank Redemption, Fargo, True Grit (2010) and Skyfall fame, delivers some nail-biting moments with nothing more than a slow push-in. The eerie, cello-driven score by Jóhann Jóhannsson endeavours to redefine the word “ominous” and is very effective, if heavy-handed and obvious at times.
Hugh Jackman has established himself as one of the best-liked leading men in Hollywood over the past decade, and it’s easy to see why: he can dance, sing, do comedy, do drama, do action and is very personable in interviews. In Prisoners, we truly get a chance to see a side of the actor we haven’t before. As a father driven to the brink, he is remarkably believable. Keller lashes out, gets mad and does some pretty unpleasant things, but Jackman’s conviction ensures the audience is always rooting for him even as he trudges past moral boundaries and we question his methods. He also never flies into histrionics or goes laughably over the top; the flashes of raw fury behind his eyes conveying a primal anger even Wolverine might respect.
He’s backed up by a supporting cast that’s very strong by any standards; for what might be seen as a smaller movie, it sure has roped in some top-drawer talent. Jake Gyllenhaal previously investigated child kidnappings as real-life true crime author Robert Graysmith in Zodiac. His character here is less obsessive and not so much consumed by his job as dutifully going about it. Detective Loki, possibly snicker-inducing name notwithstanding, is a character we want to see succeed as much as we want to see Keller find his daughter.
Paul Dano is very good as Alex and is an actor who deserves to hit the big time very soon. Is he just feigning a disability and is really the devious mastermind, or is he a victim himself? Dano plays it such that we’re not so sure one way or the other. Melissa Leo at her suburban grandmother-iest also ensures we’re never quite certain if Keller should be trusting her. David Dastmalchian is fantastically creepy as the other prime suspect, while Viola Davis and Maria Bello both make for convincingly distraught mothers. If there’s a weak link, it might be Terrence Howard, who struggles to match up to Jackman’s skill level. Dylan Minnette and Zoe Borde as the older kids of the Dover and Birch households also deliver rather stilted performances.
However, this far from cripples this absorbing film that manages to be feverishly suspenseful without being emotionally manipulative. There are several “plants and payoffs” that might be too blatant to some viewers; points of plot which are laid down in full view so they can be picked up on again later. The masterful construction of the piece isn’t undermined and from its haunting atmospherics to its powerhouse lead performances, Prisoners is the kind of film that doesn’t loosen its grip for a second.
SUMMARY: Its premise may sound straight out of any number of police procedural TV shows, but tight direction and a firing-on-all-cylinders turn from Hugh Jackman ensure that this will be lurking around the corners of your mind for a fair bit after leaving the theatre.
RATING: 4 out of 5 Stars
Originally written for F*** Magazine