For his Hollywood debut, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve hits the jackpot, so to speak: an all-star cast and crew at the service of the sort of prestige drama that Academy Award voters lap up breathlessly, but also a script (by Aaron Guzikowski) that had long been part of the infamous "Black List" of top-shelf unproduced scripts, using the thriller conventions to discuss matters of faith and justice. All certainly very self-important on paper, and the film can't help but leach some of that self-awareness into its greyish, portentous palette of visuals, inexorable length and downbeat mood. Yet, there's also something more to Prisoners, in the way the film charts the loss of security and the disorientation of lost landmarks that dog the American working class at the moment.

     Here, the disappearance and probable kidnapping of two young girls from a Pittsburgh suburb throw the father of one of them, survivalist contractor Keller Dover (a wiry, jagged Hugh Jackman) into disarray, as his role as protector and provider for the family is suddenly exposed as an illusion he has no control over. Attempting to wrestle back control of his life, Dover charges into unthought, uncalled-for vigilantism while Loki, the detective running the investigation (Jake Gyllenhaal, coiled and brooding), is baffled by the contradictory, mysterious clues that circle back to a stunted, child-like young man (Paul Dano) that can be either perpetrator or accomplice but seems unaware of his exact role. It's a dicey story to balance exactly and Mr. Villeneuve manages to stay just the right side of it, careful not to edge too far into over-earnestness or over-seriousness, helped by the structure of Mr. Guzikowski's script as a two-sided police procedural following both Dover and Loki's enquiries.

     But by intermingling both the procedural and the personal elements, Prisoners can't help but remind one of Clint Eastwood's earlier Mystic River, with whom it shares thematic links, the working-class setting and an equally fatalistic worldview (as well as Mr. Eastwood's regular editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach). And, while there's absolutely nothing to be faulted in the presentation or construction of the film, the thought creeps in that it's all a bit too smoothly finished and purposefully restrained for comfort. There are thoughtful, important questions asked - about faith (Keller's religious views render the difficulty of his predicament all the more harrowing, and religion will play an important role in the eventual dénouement), about justice (his decision to take the matter into his own hands is an uncomfortable reminder of Abu Ghraib or Guantánamo) - but there's also the impression that Prisoners ends up keeping a respectful distance from those edges and never really leaves the comfort zone it has mapped out for itself. For all that, it is a thought-provoking, confident, smart proposition; a fine example of a genre film that deals intelligently with the contemporary world, even if it doesn't go as far as one would like.

Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Screenplay: Aaron Guzikowski
Cinematography: Roger A. Deakins  (colour)
Music: Jóhann Jóhansson
Designer: Patrice Vermette
Costumes: Renée April
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Producers: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner (Alcon Entertainment, 8:38 Productions and Madhouse Entertainment)
USA, 2013, 153 minutes

Screened: distributor advance press screening, UCI El Corte Inglés 12, October 9th 2013

Nominated for the 2013 Academy Award for Cinematography


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