Anybody can write a story. But translating the written word into cinema takes a whole lot more; no, not the money or the resources that a film invariably requires, but the craft to create a sense of atmosphere; the ability to evoke an emotional reaction; the sheer fortitude to go the whole hog and stick to the characters and their journey that, until then, existed only on paper. For this and so much more, director Denis Villeneuve deserves more than a pat on his back.
An innocuous-enough Thanksgiving dinner between two families turns into a nightmare as the younger child of each family, both girls, go missing. The nightmare becomes more horrifying with each passing minute, as the sequence of unfolding events stems from the past and has repercussions on the future…
Prisoners, which quite easily counts as one of my favourite films of the year so far, begins with a gently uttered prayer. Then, as this stark, measured, bone-chilling thriller begins to unfold, a careful cinema-watcher may notice how Christian iconography subtly but repeatedly appears through the initial half of the film, until it suddenly stops. Consequently, one can’t help but wonder if this has any significance in the alarming larger scheme of things.
That is, of course, only until the writer and director choose to clear the fog and let you release that heartbeat you’d been holding up for so long. You’ll probably then forget all about the symbolism and foreshadowing, and that is where Villeneuve truly, genuinely, comes up trumps with Prisoners.
His narration is extremely understated, as subtle as it can be. He lays out almost all his cards on the table earlier than most directors would have had the guts to. The trick, though, lies in achieving the balance between revealing your cards, while inviting, in fact challenging, even the most attentive of viewers to keep pace with him. Unlike a lot of thrillers where you’re always either a step ahead of the director or many steps behind, in Prisoners, you’re almost always walking alongside him. How much you enjoy the film depends on what he’s showing you, and where you’re looking.
Then, of course, there is the moral ambiguity that the writer and director toy with. There’s the father of one of the missing girls, there’s the cop investigating the case, and there is the world that is affected by a terrifying ordeal. You always know how you want the film to end, but the moral questions the film poses in its journey to the end is what really holds the film together.
Prisoners is embellished by at least two standout performances. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, father of one of the missing girls. In a span of under two years, Jackman has played such widely different characters in Real Steel, Les Misérables, The Wolverine and now Prisoners, that one can’t help but be wowed by him each time he appears on screen. His desperation, his conviction and his frustration all seem so real, you can’t help but feel for him. The revelation, though is Jake Gyllenhaal as the interestingly named Loki, the obsessive detective chasing the case. Gyllenhaal played a very similar character in David Fincher’s Zodiac, but his performance in Prisoners shows just how much he has grown as an actor.
The soul of the film, however, is Roger Deakins’ cinematography. Be it the dark, torch-lit or headlight-lit frames or the sleet-obscured shots, the film’s continuous sense of murky foreboding must almost wholly be credited to Mr. Deakins. Every time I watch a film shot by him, I can’t help but feel that he is truly one of the greatest cinematographers ever. Prisoners also has a sparse background score that enhances the mood the film creates.
As the characters in the film question and act on their own motivations, you question your own moral compass as well. Prisoners isn’t quite a film for everyone, and this isn’t just because of the bloodshed or the horrifying aspects of the story. The fact is that if you let yourself get sucked into the world that the film creates, you will ask questions of yourself as well. And those, usually, are the toughest ones to answer.
This review is by guest reviewer Pradeep Menon. Pradeep is a filmmaker and a dreamer. He loves books, rain, winters, tea and his parents. Cinema, however, is the only truth he believes in. He breathes and bleeds film, mostly in hues of saffron, white, green and blue. You can watch his short films at www.youtube.com/cyberpradeep.
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