It’s rare in this day and age that one gets a slow, meandering drama that doesn’t give in to hysteria or become boring. Prisoners gets the balance right. This is an exceptional piece of work; both an assured crime drama and a political play that asks some very difficult and somewhat disturbing questions from its audience. Directed by Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who made the Oscar nominated Incendies, the film feels like a thoughtful novel transferred, rather beautifully, to the big screen. It isn’t actually an adaptation but an original screenplay from Aaron Guzikowski, writer of last year’s thriller Contraband.
Carefully controlled from the start until the terrifying climax, the story charts the search for two missing girls who are snatched from their neighbourhood on Thanksgiving. Their parents (two couples played by Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello, and Viola Davis and Terrence Howard) understandably go through hell. Just as everyone around them are preparing for Christmas with their families, they find that their own has been ripped apart in the cruellest way possible.
The detective assigned to the investigation is a kind, intense fellow (very well played by Jake Gyllenhaal) who at first suspects a young man with learning difficulties (Paul Dano). This part is crucial, as it results in the kidnapping and torture of the young man at the hands of one (and then two and three) of the parents whose children are missing.
The scenes of torture are harrowing and at times the movie takes the viewer to disturbing areas of violence that are rarely seen in mainstream Hollywood movies. The deliberate, controlled nature of the torture, and the imagery that accompanies it, is reminiscent of extreme Asian cinema – the kind that is usually reserved for aficionados who can stomach such gruelling details. But it never gets too much, it doesn’t become gratuitous, and Guzikowski has a careful handle on how much we see and how much we think we see. It is quite plain that the filmmakers wish us to draw parables between the drama unfolding before our eyes and how torture may or may not have been used by the Bush administration. These metaphors can remain if the viewer wishes them to and add an even greater sense of unease to the experience. For scenes like this to work, one needs a very visually intelligent director, and thankfully that is what we have here.
Talking of visual intelligence, the cinematography is courtesy of Roger Deakins, a legend of the craft and a genius in his own right. The film looks amazing in every frame.
The performances are uniformly excellent, especially supporting actor Viola Davis, who is restrained but heartbreaking as a mother who doesn’t know whether she should be worrying or grieving. There is also another terrific turn from Melissa Leo – so terrific, I actually didn’t realise it was her until very late on.
In terms of weaknesses, they do come down to plot difficulties. There are a number of aspects the more astute viewers will notice as unrealistic. The behaviour of the central detective is not always entirely believable, nor is the fact he seems allowed to work on his own on such a large, high-profile case.
Nothing is perfect, however, and even with these flaws, Prisoners succeeds in entirely immersing the viewer into a dark world of sustained discomfort and mounting menace. I don’t think I’ve watched a more unsettling movie this year.
Prisoners (2013), directed by Aaron Guzikowski, is released in UK cinemas by Entertainment One, Certificate 15.