How far would or could you go to protect your children? That’s the core question lurking at the heart of Denis Villeneuve’s new Hollywood thriller Prisoners, a surprisingly brutal police procedural which definitively signals the end of Summer season and marks the beginning of that brief serious window of pre-award product nervously skulking into cinemas. I’ve already recommended Villeneuve’s uncompromising Incendies on here before so I was already pre-disposed to give his first American picture a chance, it was one of my TiFF targets which I failed to nail due to competing priorities, so I was rather pleased to see such a quick European release for what may well be included in the top-tier of films of the year. Villeneuve’s credentials aside I was in the mood for some more mature material if I’m honest, I’ve had my fill of comic book ballast and action abrogations for the moment, having recently rewatched Star Trek: Into Darkness I was quite shocked at just how terrible that film is once the CGI scales fall from the lens flared eyes, so something much more intelligent and caustic was an oddly welcome confection as the nights start to draw in and the Autumn clouds gather.
Against a murky and bruised framed sky of mid West America two working class families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman & Mario Bello) clearly love their son and younger daughter and are a relatively happy unit, her mildly mothering concern standing in muted contrast to his masculine stars n’ stripes stoicism. Nancy and Franklin Birch (Viola Davis & Terence Howard) are a little more happy-go-lucky, their similar affection for their daughter slipping into frantic histrionics when the two girls vanish after a post dinner stroll, the owner of a decrepit RV lurking in the area becoming the initial suspect in a desperate race to locate the missing children. Enter the oddly named Lt. Loki (a exhaustively blinky Jake Gyllenhaal) who of course has never failed to close a case, his initial suspicions of the greasy simpleton Alex (another mournful turn from Paul Dano) thwarted by a concrete lack of physical evidence. After Alex is released from custody a desperate Keller decides to take matters into his own bloodied hands, as his conviction that he can beat a confession out of his incarcerated suspect are surpassed by more inchoate discoveries….
It’s quite rare these days to be assaulted by a Hollywood product which is serious in intent and so sour in tone, as this is a very exhausting and oppressive picture which doesn’t compromise with its serious approach to severe themes. That said it unfortunately does resort to some textbook screenplay coincidences in its final manoeuvres which does taint the overall effect, but the quality of the performances, the gripping plot and unexpected clues and misdirection will keep audiences guessing right until the amputative end. The cast both supporting and lead are adequately painful and writhing in winterlit misery, Jackman in particular peddles a fine line of frustrated fury whilst Gyllenhaal elaborates on his Zodiac obsessive convictions with a physically orientated performance stuffed full of nervous tics and zen attuned observation. The religious iconography may be ladled on a little thick by Villeneuve including pendulous crucifi, slithering serpents and an opening monologue yearning for a biblical scale of ferocity, but those ambitions are partially met with a duo of scenes which are expertly orchestrated as the sinister saga damns then exonerates suspects in a constantly mutating manner.
The real star of the show however is cinematographer Roger Deakins outstanding work, I honestly hesitate to use the word genius as much as I can but he is just so consistently brilliant again and again and again that the man deserves every accolade in the cinephile dictionary, lacquering the piece with a frosty oppression which enshrines Prisoners as essential big-screen viewing, a rain drenched car chase elevated to a cardiac inducing hallucination, the cobalt beams of the police vehicles strafing through a desperate darkness of despair. The obvious antecedents are of a similarly smothering sort, from the aforementioned Zodiac to Se7en to Gone Baby Gone this is similarly uncompromising adult material in both content and approach, although the plot mechanisms may lapse into formula there is a clear metaphor of losing one’s humanity and moral authority in the face of an incomprehensible, ethereal and elusive foe. In that sense if you’re looking for torturous analogies you won’t need a forensic scientist to align this with wider moral US failures of recent years, like those righteous ambiguities this isn’t a perfect film by any stretch of the imagination but worth the price of admission for Deakins adumbral etching alone, a fevered American debut which Villeneuve needs to supplement with a more accomplished ambit;