The greatest strength of Prisoners, a new dark and suspenseful thriller by director Denis Villeneuve, is that it creates such a wonderfully harrowing atmosphere, a horribly engrossing sense of hopelessness that overwhelms the viewer. The chaos and destruction caused by a child abduction, and one father’s monstrous desperation to get his daughter back is deeply felt by the audience, thanks to great performances from a cast including Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal and Paul Dano, who like all good actors, fully become the people they are playing. You believe every tear, every cry of despair, and every act of vengeance they bring to the screen. Although Prisoners does so many things right, it stumbles and falls on the final hurdle, leaving an unsatisfactory ending and a sense of missed opportunity.
Hugh Jackman plays every father’s nightmare, a man who has to face up to the reality of having his child abducted. The police start an investigation, led by Jake Gyllenhaal, and almost immediately arrest a likely suspect, the owner of a vehicle seen at the scene only minutes before the abduction occurred. The suspect, played by Paul Dano superbly, is a stereotypical Hollywood weirdo; shy, huge glasses, and the IQ of a 10 year old, who never seems to understand what’s going on, yet leaves cryptic messages for the families to go crazy over. Hugh Jackman, in his fragile state, convinces himself this is the man who has taken his daughter, and manages to perform an abduction of his own, roping him to a sink in an abandoned building and torturing him. All the while, Jake Gyllenhaal searches for the truth, but yet getting drawn into suspicions of Jackman’s actions. It’s harrowing stuff, and the cold, repressive atmosphere never lets up for a moment; Prisoners is brutal filmmaking.
Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal are terrific actors, and in Prisoners they deliver fantastic performances to really raise the film an extra level, which perhaps the script doesn’t deserve. Jackman in particular is terrific, his portrayal of a desperate and slightly deranged father losing his mind in worry is utterly convincing and actually quite disturbing, especially when he is finding new and shocking ways to torture his captive suspect for information that might lead to his daughter. He and Gyllenhaal make a very appealing pair of leads, and the scenes with them together are among the best in the film. Paul Dano, as the weird and supposedly obvious child abductor is incredible; he conveys such an expressive range of emotions without saying more than twenty words throughout the entire movie. Even though we the audience and the characters think this weird, stupid man is to blame for all this misery, the torture scenes are still very hard to watch. The lines between good and evil become very blurred, as Hugh Jackman’s character slowly becomes more desperate and more ruthless. As a desperate father is threatening to smash a mentally disabled man’s hand, I really did not know who to care for, who to trust, who to side with. Prisoners never fulfils the cliché of asking the audience “What would you do?” but I thought it all the same, which is of immense credit to the writers and the actors. Another brilliant element of Prisoners is the stunning cinematography, which I think may be some of the best i’ve seen since the Swedish modern horror classic Let the Right One In. Although it is raining most of the way through the film, it also displays quite stunning scenes blanketed by snow, especially at night, where car headlights stand out through the darkness. Again, it raises Prisoners up to another level, a height which goes above the average dark thriller released every year. Rarely are films so excellently crafted by both the director and cinematographer as Prisoners is, which makes the disappointment all the greater when the momentum and suspense falters in its final act.
Although Prisoners does do an excellent job of refraining from ticking off a bunch of thriller clichés, it invariably falls into the age old cliché that the mystery and the suspense is far more interesting than the actual conclusion. For a film that builds suspense so masterfully, and keeps the audience hooked for so long, the ending is quite sloppy in comparison, as if the writers hastily chucked the ending in later as an afterthought. It’s not an awful ending, it’s just a disappointing and underwhelming one which feels like it has been taken from a more idiotic, generic movie. Another suspect the police arrest, who seems to be more of a credible child abductor, is wasted as a character, and is cleared before we can really explore his immediately interesting story. Considering Prisoners is overlong anyway, wouldn’t it have made more sense to have cut the final half an hour, and made this suspect the actual abductor? This change would have made it a shorter movie, but perhaps a better one.
Although it was horrible to watch, the scenes where Hugh Jackman’s father figure tortures the defenceless Paul Dano for hours at a time are shocking and disturbing in the best way, and successfully blur the lines between justice and vengeance, good and evil. Prisoners isn’t a film for the faint hearted, and the highest compliment I can give to these scenes is that thanks to them, I don’t ever want to see Prisoners again. That’s a good thing.
The ending feels lazy and unclear, leaving us with the old cliché that the mystery is a lot more satisfying than the conclusion. It isn’t a disaster, but it does feel like a shame that the film couldn’t keep up the good work, and the final thirty minutes let the rest of the film down somewhat.
Despite a lacklustre ending, Prisoners is one of the smartest and most atmospheric thrillers of the year, thanks to terrific performances from Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, plus some incredible cinematography which really raises the film above the average Hollywood thriller. Be warned: Prisoners is very dark and very hard-hitting, and it can’t be seen as a casual cinema trip. It’s an overwhelmingly bleak picture, but is all the better for it.