It’s Jake Gyllenhaal that stands out in this absorbing thriller.
Prisoners lets Hugh Jackman explore his darker side as Keller Dover, the father who will stop at nothing to get his daughter back after her and a friend go missing on Thanksgiving. Jackman gives a frightening depiction of the anger and confusion of a parent in that situation – Dover is relentless in his pursuit of the ‘truth’ and justice, obtained at any cost, leading him into confrontation with suspect Alex (Paul Dano) when he’s released by police. Rage is something we’ve seen from Jackman before, but here it seems to come from a much deeper, more disturbing place than Wolverine’s. He loses more of himself the longer his daughter is lost.
Jake Gyllenhaal isthe lone, obsessive Detective Loki who’s brought on to the investigation, a cop who’s solved every case he’s had. His role could have easily been simply drawn from a template, but Gyllenhaal and director Denis Villeneuve create a mysterious character drawn from little details. He’s never made explicit, we glean hints of back-story from small clues – the tattoos on his neck and knuckles, the excessive blinking, the barely noticeable remark about a youth spent in a home for boys. Gyllenhaal brings a real assuredness and maturity to the role, more than matching up to Jackman, and ends as the real star of the show.
That being said, the rest of the cast are also uniformly excellent. Paul Dano (There Will be Blood, Looper) as suspect Alex, who has an IQ of 10, manages to create the feeling that you’re convinced of his guilt one minute, and innocence the next; while Terrence Howard (Crash, Hustle & Flow), the father of the other missing girl, acts as the quiet conflicted conscience drawn into Dover’s dubious tactics. Viola Davis and Maria Bello also both get their own impressive moments as the distraught mothers.
Villeneuve displays the same skill of weaving mystery and emotional extremes into the story as he did with the 2010 Oscar-nominated Incendies. He brings a more artistic sensibility than a story like this might usually enjoy, with numerous atmospheric shots that linger on the woods or show the action through rain-covered glass. The direction and story-telling are aiming for something more subtle, not relying on jump-scares or an over-the-top score, but on creating a mood. The pace is fairly glacial at times (perhaps reflecting the true protracted nature of police investigations), but this serves to make those times when it does break out more tense, often with the feeling of things spiralling out of control. Yet, while the film is engaging throughout, it could do with trimming its significant 2 ½ hour running time.
While the case could be solved by an attentive viewer about halfway through, it’s refreshing that the plot isn’t totally spelled out, never overtly expositional, relying on the audience to be aware enough to make their own connections and judgements. Doubt is seeded throughout the film and the subtle nudges forward in plot pay off, with a couple of moments eliciting audible gasps from the audience. However, the film isn’t as complex or smart as it think it is, or might have been from the pieces assembled; and while Dover’s actions through the film raise questions – what rules are worth breaking to get to the truth? Are the means of this search justified by the ends? – these are ultimately undermined by the eventual resolution.
Jackman may be the big star draw for Prisoners, but it’s Jake Gyllenhaal’s more understated and complex performance that is the stand-out of Denis Villeneuve’s absorbing thriller.
Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano
Released by: Village Roadshow