Most filmmakers understand the importance of telling a good story, but not many understand that creating an atmosphere is equally important—and even scarcer are those who can perform this task successfully. So, watching a film like "Prisoners" is a rare cinephile pleasure, since, in addition to creating a sad and distressing universe, this new work by the Canadian Denis Villeneuve still brings a complex plot, built with pinpoint accuracy by screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski.
Referring—in story and tone—to works such as the "Zodiac," "Seven," "Memories of Murder," "Mystic River," "The Pledge" and "The Vanishing" (the original one), "Prisoners" lives up to these fabulous companions, following characters tormented by the disappearance of two little girls during Thanksgiving. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), initially sure he has found the man responsible for the abduction by arresting young Alex Jones (Dano), soon becomes restless when concluding that the young man has the IQ of a ten-year-old child. Loki is forced to release him for lack of evidence. This decision angers one of the girls' father, Keller Dover (Jackman), who, certain of the suspect's guilt, decides to kidnap him in order to force him to reveal the whereabouts of the children.
The film's title refers directly to the situation of almost all the characters in the narrative. The film follows constantly suffocated creatures who are imprisoned in a literal (girls, Alex), psychological (Keller) and/or emotional way (Loki). Chained in their personal hells, these individuals seem lost in an unsolvable maze—a metaphor that eventually presents itself literally, demonstrating the screenwriter's care with the construction of the symbolism in his story.
Privileged to count on the master Roger Deakins' cinematography, the film appears sad and melancholic from the first shot, investing in a palette that, submerged in shades of gray and brown, involves the characters in continuous cold. At one point, Deakins and Villeneuve even make the transition from a rainstorm into a snowstorm in the same scene, marking not only the complete deterioration of the relations between Jackman and Gyllenhaal's characters (the change occurs at the moment when the first is observed by the second), but also the psychological state of the two men. Furthermore, Deakins is skilled when creating an always claustrophobic atmosphere, initiating the strategy at the moment when the children's parents realize they have disappeared. The parents are seen in a room that, until then, was cozy, and suddenly seems to squeeze them down with its low roof and its walls close to each other.
Featuring a formidable cast, which brings Maria Bello in an almost catatonic state, Viola Davis surrendered to a quiet desperation and Terrence Howard torn between the wish to find his daughter and the moral dilemma created by his friend's actions, Prisoners gains strength especially thanks to the contrast between its two central performances. In this sense, Hugh Jackman has some advantage, being given the most explosive character, since Keller is a man tormented by his impotence in the face of what happened to his daughter. That exposes his strategy of always being prepared for any incident as an ineffective habit, since, at the most crucial moment, he could do nothing. Touching and frightening in equal measure, the guy can barely stifle his angry outbursts, although he seems to immediately regret these—and Jackman makes it clear that Keller does not obtain any sadistic pleasure from his actions, appearing to actually believe in torture as a last resort to save his daughter.
However, if Jackman's performance is the one that draws most attention, I would not hesitate to rate the one offered by Jake Gyllenhall as the most difficult and therefore intriguing. If Keller constantly exposes what he feels, Detective Loki is an introspective man who seeks to maintain the distant professional attitude that the job demands. His insistence on saying that he "is considering all the possibilities" presents itself as a catch phrase that means nothing (and he knows it means nothing), used only to appease emotional witnesses and victims. With small tics (he blinks often) that indicate an immense inner turmoil in a minimalist way, Loki is a man who tries to be understanding and patient even in the face of Keller's aggressiveness, but gradually lets us realize his increasing difficulty keeping his frustration under control. I would be immensely happy if the actor was nominated for major awards for his disciplined and revealing work in this film.
Meanwhile, Denis Villeneuve demonstrates, yet again, the narrative control displayed in the great "Incendies" and "Polytechnique," keeping the viewer always tense, through his always evocative framing—from the shot that shows Maria Bello's character lying as if she was in a coffin, to those, slightly inclined, indicating the instability of the characters. Moreover, the filmmaker understands perfectly the concept of suspense, creating clear and strong expectations in the audience only to delay its payoffs, as in the beautiful sequence that shows a desperate race in traffic, at night and in the rain, and the one that uses the automatic lights of a small neighborhood to indicate the movement of a suspect. Moreover, the melancholic cinematography is complemented perfectly by the production design and the costumes, always keeping brown tones on the mise-en-scene. To complete the effect, editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach use the constant fades not as lazy transitions (a mistake of so many professionals), but as a way of introducing ellipses at times when the movie seems about to surrender to formulaic actions the viewer is able to imagine by himself.
Which brings us, finally, to the beautiful script by Aaron Guzikowski, which will only fail to be in the spotlight at award ceremonies if his colleagues go mad (I suggest you watch the movie first and only then read the rest of this review, since I have to mention some minor spoilers). Building a complex plot that depends on several incidents presented in a seemingly disconnected way, but that will eventually fit without leaving even one without explanation, Guzikowski is skillful when suggesting elements of his characters' personalities through quick details, like brief animal torture, a newspaper clipping revealing the suicide of Keller's father (who, perfect from the thematic point of view, was a prison warden) or the mention of Loki's past, raised in an orphanage. Furthermore, the writer demonstrates unparalleled talent to introduce clues that, contrary to what occurs in so many feature films, are established without drawing excessive attention to themselves (the red whistle, the mention of the Dover's abandoned apartment, the long-time missing boy, the disappearance of Alex 's uncle), which makes the rewards even more satisfactory.
Also introducing thematic elements that make clear the importance of the characters' religious devotion from the first take—something fundamental when considering the motivation behind the crimes—"Prisoners" still makes a counterpoint between Keller's faith and his actions, with emphasis on the instant when he cannot complete the "Our Father" prayer for recognizing his own hypocrisy as he almost recites "as we forgive those who trespass against us" (and the decision of the composer Jóhann Jóhannsson to include chords on an organ, referring to sacred music, at the instant that the subject is thrown into his private purgatory, is fantastic). If nothing else, Guzikowski avoids the error of justifying torture, converting Keller's discovery into a final dramatic irony, because although he will eventually find out what happened, his finding plays no role in the outcome, since it is up to Detective Loki, with his meticulous investigation and the use of reason, to find the criminal.
Sinning only for not letting the outcome be as ambiguous as it seems to desire, "Prisoners" is a touching drama, a suffocating study in suspense and a magnificent detective film. One of the best feature films of the year, without a doubt.