Prisoners: Telluride Review

A difficult subject is bolstered by outstanding performances and masterly filmmaking.

Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal lead an all-star cast in Canadian director Denis Villeneuve's thriller about the search for two abducted children.

Can a superbly crafted film overcome audience resistance to an extremely painful subject? That is a question that Warner Bros. will be pondering nervously as Prisoners moves from its festival screenings during the next week to a wide national release later in September. The movie deals with the abduction of two young children and the havoc that this trauma wreaks on the families and police officers investigating the crime. While the subject has been in the news recently, giving the film undeniable timeliness, there’s a difference between following a disturbing news story and paying to see a similar drama unfold at the multiplex. In addition, the film doesn’t flinch from graphic moments of violence and terror.

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Canadian director Denis Villeneuve makes his Hollywood debut with this film. His previous film, the Oscar-nominated foreign-language film Incendies, did attract an audience, even though it dealt with rape, incest, and religious hatred. Still, that was essentially an art house success that may not be a relevant point of comparison for a wider, major studio release. Leaving aside the movie’s uncertain commercial prospects, this much is certain: Viewers who see the movie will find it absolutely riveting, and this is a tribute to the filmmaker’s skill and to the excellent cast that brings the story to life.

The film begins indirectly but ominously as a man encourages his teenage son to hunt and kill a deer. The father, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a carpenter who seems to be one of those survivalists who clings to guns and religion, but our view of him as a right-wing nutcase is modified when we see that he and his family choose to spend Thanksgiving with a black family in the neighborhood. (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play the neighbors.) The friendship of these two families is surprising but handled naturally and believably. As everyone relaxes during the course of a long afternoon, their two young daughters go outside and never return. A suspicious looking van was spotted outside, and the parents begin to fear the worst as they contact the police, and a search for the two girls builds in intensity. The police arrest the driver of the van, Alex (Paul Dano), who turns out to be mentally impaired, but they have insufficient evidence to keep him in custody. Frustrated, Keller decides to abduct Alex and interrogate him brutally, convinced that this is the only way to save the two girls while the clock is ticking.

The film makes pertinent, provocative comments on vigilante justice, and the issues are never simplified in Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay. Keller is fanatical, but we sense that he may have legitimate reasons for his suspicion of Alex. When he gets the neighboring couple involved in his torture plan, they are initially appalled but hesitant to stop him because they too sense that this may be the only way to save the children.

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As Keller’s interrogation continues in scenes that are gruesome but never exploitative, Villeneuve frequently cuts away to follow the lead police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is pursuing his own investigation that includes questioning Alex’s lonely aunt (Melissa Leo), whose troubled family history may have led her nephew astray.  As the film weaves all the plot and character strands together, the vise tightens. There are some truly scary scenes as new suspects appear and the film twists its way to a dark, mordant conclusion. It’s worth remembering that Incendies, despite its Oscar nomination and excellent reviews, was essentially a high-class melodrama, and that’s the way that Prisoners should be viewed as well. And thanks to the efforts of an expert filmmaking team, it’s a smashingly effective melodrama.

Villeneuve enlisted brilliant cinematographer Roger Deakins, who captures the rainy, chilly atmosphere of this Pennsylvania community with visual eloquence. (Pennsylvania was convincingly recreated outside Atlanta.) The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, editors of many of Clint Eastwood’s recent movies, is also first rate. Although the film runs two and a half hours, there doesn’t seem to be a wasted frame.

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The performances also enrich the film. Jackman gives what may be the most intense and satisfying performance of his career. As the film progresses, we learn that Keller is a far more complex and tormented character than his first appearance as macho hunter suggested. A recovering alcoholic and less than perfect husband, he seems to be acting out these vigilante fantasies as a way of compensating for a deep-seated sense of inadequacy. Jackman illuminates the character’s conflicted nature without ever begging for sympathy. Gyllenhaal is also playing a troubled character, a suspicious loner who nonetheless has a strong desire to help people in need, and he wins our sympathy for this dogged detective without in any way idealizing the character. Howard and Davis are excellent, as always, though one flaw of the film is that they have too little to do in the second half of the story.

As the plot twists multiply and tension mounts, the film reaches a climax that is satisfying without being predictable. Special praise should go to the sound engineer for a shrewd touch in the very last scene that brings the story to an absolutely perfect conclusion. Prisoners can at times be a hard film to watch, but thanks to all the talent involved, it’s even harder to shake off.

Production: Alcon Entertainment
Cast:  Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski
Producers: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner
Executive producers: Edward L. McDonnell, John H. Starke, Robyn Meisinger, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson
Director of photography: Roger A. Deakins
Production designer: Patrice Vermette
Music: Johann Johannsson
Costume designer: Renee April
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach

Rated R, 153 minutes