Prisoners Director: Denis Villeneuve Starring: Maria Bello, Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal ⋆⋆⋆
Last time out, the Canadian director Denis Villeneuve received plaudits and an Oscar nomination for his Middle East-set drama Incendies. His first foray into English-language filmmaking, Prisoners, was equally well-received when it debuted at the Toronto Film Festival this month – it came third in the Audience Award, behind 12 Years a Slave and Philomena. The only prize given out at Toronto has proved a great benchmark for Oscar success in recent years. But for my money – and to use a boxing term – this was a hometown result.
While there is much to admire about Prisoners – it’s handsomely shot by the Coen brothers’ regular cinematographer Roger Deakins, there is a beguiling central performance by Hugh Jackman playing Keller Dover and the thriller zips along despite lasting 146 minutes – it feels a little cold, too predictable and has a suspect moral core.
At first, Prisoners delves into the moral quandary of vigilante justice. It poses the ethical question that Wolverine and other superhero movies run roughshod over: should victims of crime be able to take the law into their own hands?
On Thanksgiving, two young girls go missing, the child of Keller and Grace Dover (Bello) and the daughter of Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis). The only suspect is a loner called Alex Birch (Paul Dano), but when the police let him go believing him innocent, Keller decides to take the law into his own hands and imprisons and brutally tortures Birch. Franklin protests when he discovers what Keller is up to but soon becomes party to the crime.
The police come in the shape of Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki. Following in the footsteps of both Zodiac and End of Watch, Gyllenhaal is carving out a successful career depicting cops struggling to unpick crimes. Loki comes across as both nerdy and incompetent.
The initial set-up has echoes of Gone Baby Gone and Mystic River and, just like those films, Prisoners eventually decides to play safe.
The trouble is that these initial questions about justice and parental guilt fall by the wayside as Prisoners starts to follow a Hollywood narrative. There is no room left for ambiguity as the facts of the case become revealed, combined with a heavy dose of schmaltz. Having said that, the final scene is excellent, even if it feels a bit like a silver lining from a cloud that has already evaporated.