The first thing you notice is that for a high-profile mainstream released film, Denis Villeneuve adopts a very non-commercial look. Prisoners looks far more like an indie film that the slickly packaged product you get with a traditional US-made thriller (not that anybody in the US seems to be making thrillers for theatrical release anymore). The film is shot in working class neighbourhoods (in rural Georgia) and dreary suburban tract malls, where the house interiors are plain and drab and an A-list Hollywood name like Hugh Jackman is dressed down as a regular working man. Villeneuves style is plain and unadorned. He never dwells on the brutality and torture, yet manages to depict it in ways that are far grimmer than most of the films in the so-called Torture Porn fad all that he need to do to show the brutalisation of Paul Dano is having Hugh Jackman holding Danos hand down against a sink, threatening to break his bones with a hammer and then Jackman completely losing it and smashing the sink to pieces with the hammer.
Prisoners closely resembles The Tortured (2010), a film in which Jesse Metcalfe and Erika Christensen play a married couple who abduct and torture a paedophile who killed their son. The Tortured was a generic thriller that made a play for the Torture Porn sensibilities, whereas Prisoners feels like a smart and intelligent version of the same that instead concentrates on building everything into a tight corkscrew thriller. Both films also throw in twists where it appears the people doing the torturing have the wrong person, abruptly questioning the legitimacy of their protagonistsactions. Prisoners also has a remarkably similar plot to the immensely entertaining Israeli thriller Big Bad Wolves (2013), which was released only a month before.
The other work that I was constantly being reminded of was Zero Dark Thirty (2012), which similarly had a plot where the protagonistsdecide that torture is a legitimate means of obtaining necessary information in the search for the whereabouts of people. By comparison to Zero Dark Thirty, Prisoners at last feels like a work that questions the acceptability of torture. For fully two-thirds of the film, it appears to be heading in a very dark direction making us examine what the protagonist is doing is it acceptable for a man to pursue what he is certain is right if it means breaking the law? What if that meant his torturing another individual? What would happen if he were wrong in those assumptions? However, the film also seems to want to have its cake and eat it too where The Tortured ended with the protagonistsrealisation that they had tortured the wrong person, Prisoners instead heads off into another entire hour worth of material as its chases down the real suspects. Here it feels like a film that addresses big moral issues and ones that seem to have much resonance for our times but then lets thriller plotting take precedence and leaves these questions hanging as it heads off in different directions.
The film opened at the Toronto International Film Festival to divided notices, although fared considerably better once it went into mainstream release almost straight after, earning quite reasonable box-office. Much of the negative opinion seemed to be kneejerk reactions that gravitated around its darkness as a film or the excessive complication of its script. There are times that the script defies probability in the number of suspects credibly tied to the abduction all within the same narrow geographic area (and later it would appear are all entwined in a complex web of connections). On the other hand, it is one of the best written scripts on screen in some time it is a thriller that requires you to watch every tiny detail to get some of the littered clues and where the entire film can spin its assumptions around on a mere whispered suggestion.
The film brings together some amazing performances. Both Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal deliver peak of their career performances. Hugh Jackman determines to play an ordinary man rather than an A-list star and is thoroughly convincing, bowed under contained rage and grief. During the times when he gets to lose it and smash the sink up or in the scene where he is sitting in the police car, the sudden explosiveness leaves you going wow at the end of the scene. Similarly, Jake Gyllenhaal immerses himself in what might have beeb a cutout role in any other actors hands and gives it his all (even if the character is given the oddly distracting tic of blinking the entire way through). You cannot go without mentioning the always great Melissa Leo whose performance towards the end becomes something astonishing just the flinty tiredness of her voice as she talks about wanting to destroy peoples faith in God sends chills up and down your spine.
(Winner for Best Supporting Actress (Melissa Leo), Nominee for Best Original Screenplay, Best Actor (Hugh Jackman) and Best Actor (Jake Gyllenhaal) at this sites Best of 2013 Awards).