Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman star in this tense child abduction thriller.
The first English language film from Canadian movie director, Dennis Villeneuve, whose 2010 film Incendies led to a Best Film nomination at last year’s BAFTAs,
Prisoners opens on a father-son hunting trip and some blunt references to the fragility of life and the absence of guilt.
These early attempts at raising suspense fall somewhat flat but Prisoners heightens the tension when two young girls, Anna Dover and Joy Birch are abducted, throwing their families into desperation.
Suspicious RV owner, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who possesses the IQ of a ten year old, is promptly accused of the crime but released without evidence by hardworking cop Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal).
The girls’ fathers - Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) - are thrown into the centre of their own frustrated search as they cope with the loss.
Dano plays his part with just the right balance of ambiguity in this did-he-didn’t-he role with a few whispers here, glances there and a rigid unwillingness to talk.
Indeed, Prisoners is buoyed up by the calibre of its lead performances. Hugh Jackman is thoroughly convincing as the desperate, frustrated father whose extremes of rage are both disturbing and moving, while Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) blends heroism with fallibility to give us a fully rounded character despite little insight into his private life.
That the plot’s ultimate resolution relies on coincidence rather than Loki’s persistent toil seems off-kilter with the rest of Villeneuve’s intense thriller.
As Prisoners takes an unexpected plot turn that should be left for audiences to devour unspoiled, the fathers’ limits are tested and Prisoners takes audiences to some very uncomfortable places.
Villeneuve manages to keep the film within a 15 certificate with auspicious placing of cameras and darkened shots but Prisoners still has the ability to make audiences flinch.
Despite turning down some very dark avenues, the script from Aaron Guzikowski (Contraband) makes these feel like a detour, with a plot resolution that takes a much more conventional turn.
As Prisoners loses some of the meat that gave it its unique quality, the movie’s climax feels decidedly dissatisfying.
The film’s chance at depth - its psychological themes and questions about right and wrong, guilt and suffering - fail to feature prominently in the tying up of its loose ends and Prisoners leaves us without a clear message.
Yet the disappointing finale doesn’t completely destroy Villeneuve’s film.
That there’s no escape from Prisoners’ bleak approach holds its various strands together and contributes to the film’s power.
The cinematography from Oscar nominee Richard Deakins (Skyfall, True Grit, No Country For Old Men) brings a stark reality to the proceedings with its perpetual rain and snow, derelict apartment blocks and cold tones.
Prisoners is a gripping and engaging thriller with convincing performances from Gyllenhaal, Jackman and Dano, teamed with an atmosphere from Richard Deakins that lends Prisoners its stark power.
Yet this debut English feature from Villeneuve could have been so much more with greater attention to its darker themes in the final act.
Running time: 153 minutes