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Prisoners - Film Review

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by Richard Leathem (subscribe)
Freelance writer. Melbourne based cinephile. Fond of food.
Published October 19th 2013
Kidnap drama grips at every turn
Director: Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Maelstrom)
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo

French-Canadian director Denis Villenueve makes an auspicious English language debut with Prisoners, a drama full of emotional resonance and a complexity rarely found in contemporary Hollywood studio films.

Prisoners Jake Gyllenhaal Hugh Jackman
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) come to loggerheads

The story centres on the disappearance of two children in a Pennsylvania town and the torment the two sets of parents go through during the search to find them. What could have been a dour experience is enlivened by a wonderful script that gives due weight to its gallery of morally conflicted characters.

The film is focussed on one of the fathers in particular, Keller, played by Hugh Jackman, a deeply religious man who has an unsettling preoccupation for preparing for an impending apocalypse. The disappearance of his daughter unleashes an unshakeable anger in him and a resolve to lay the blame and punishment on the first plausible suspect. His actions and sentiments, naturally, are at odds with the law, represented mainly by the methodical Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) whose reputation for solving all his previous cases gives some hope to the families of the children.

Prisoners Melissa Leo Paul Dano
Melissa Leo, playing much older than her age as usual, as the guardian to Paul Dano's man-child

What follows is a gripping tale of moral quandaries, ordinary lives thrown into chaos and shifting sympathies. It's expertly constructed and immaculately played by a cast that includes five Oscar nominees. While Jackman's unhinged Keller becomes more extreme in his actions, Gyllenhaal's detective increasingly becomes the voice of reason, attempting to put the pieces together while seemingly always on the verge of having something terrible happen to him. Viola Davis and Terrence Howard are both great as the more sympathetically aggrieved couple, and for a change Paul Dano is actually meant to be creepy, although he's completely out-creeped by David Dastmalchian playing a fellow social misfit who holds an uncanny resemblance to him.

The Pennsylvania surrounds give off a chilly air, with many of the dramatic exterior scenes shot in pelting rain, recalling David Fincher's equally foreboding Seven. At other times recent release The Hunt comes to mind with it's similar milieu of a small town baying for the blood of a prematurely accused paedophile, and one particular plot point is eerily similar to the 1992 French film Olivier Olivier.

Prisoners Viola Davis Jake Gyllenhaal
Viola Davis as distraught mother Nancy with Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki

This is at times a difficult film to watch - the subject is grim, there are scenes of unflinching violence and it clocks in at two and a half hours. It is however, relentlessly suspenseful and enriched with well drawn characters. If the final scenes don't give the film the emotional pay-off you're expecting, it's but a slight blemish on an otherwise well crafted piece of cinema.

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Why? Hugh Jackman gives a career best performance
Where: At selected cinemas
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