January 28, 2023
Ithaca, NY | 32°F


Review: Suspenseful drama arrests audiences

Gyllenhaal and Jackman give gripping performances in thriller


Directed by Denis Villeneuve

An “Our Father” prayer is recited while a deer is stalked and killed in a forest. “Always be ready,” says the hunter to his teenage son. This man has spent his entire life praying for the best and preparing for the worst. In Denis Villeneuve’s brilliant crime thriller, “Prisoners,” the worst has finally arrived.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is religious, married and the father of two children, whose life changes dramatically one day when his daughters go out to play and disappear. As Dover falls apart in the wake of the disappearance, a local detective named Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) takes the case. The young detective goes on a frustrating journey, making a series of increasingly disturbing discoveries about the kidnapped children and the larger plot at work. Meanwhile, Dover resorts to torture, capturing and severely beating the suspect.

Villeneuve’s approach is slow and unobtrusive. Creeping zooms and languorous pans are favored, and the music never calls attention to itself, subtly indicating the emotional undercurrents of each scene and keeping tensions high. Detective Loki repeatedly finds himself in mysterious locations throughout the film, and each individual investigation is nothing short of mesmerizing as a result of Villeneuve’s direction. Embracing a more naturalistic aesthetic, the director drops the viewer into the detective’s space and allows for each scene to play out in real time. Villeneuve avoids making superficially pleasing edits to quicken the movie’s plot, allowing the scenes to unravel at a speed that gels with the gradual escalation of events.

The actors fascinatingly display the family members’ methods of coping, some withdrawing into days of secluded heartbreak, while Dover actively seeks the kidnapper with violent repercussions in mind. Lending a seriousness to their performances that cements the realism of their characters’ situations, Jackman and Gyllenhaal play troubled men with several doubts and apprehensions. Jackman plays the grieving Dover with gruffness and urgency that is richly felt in each of his confrontations with Gyllenhaal as a twitchy yet composed detective. Both actors give standout performances, delivering some of the best work of their careers.

The film is emotionally draining. Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay skillfully weaves themes of faith, guilt and retribution into a story of considerable intensity and tangible dread. Labyrinth-like in structure, the plot incorporates a number of red herrings that exasperate the viewer as much as Detective Loki and the equally determined Keller, who is driven to the brink of his faith and sanity.

“Prisoners” combines all the right talent to produce a film of emotional sophistication and suspenseful thrills. The mystery is as absorbing as the film’s cautionary message of grief-fuelled actions that can lead to personal ruin, and the expert direction and acting holds it all together, earning the film a spot as one of the best of the year.