USA 2013, 153 mins
Director: Denis Villeneuve

A critical and commercial success, Prisoners saw Denis Villeneuve bring his taut, powerful storytelling style to Hollywood. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), who prides himself on never leaving a case unsolved, strives to find two young girls who’ve been abducted, while the father of one of the girls (Jackman) takes the law into his own hands.

Complex, brooding and compelling, this psychological thriller boasts stand-out performances from an all-star cast, and Oscar®-nominated cinematography from Roger Deakins.

‘Be ready. All that stands between you and being dead is you.’ This is the grim father-son warning that opens Canadian director Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language movie, a powerful and deftly twisted child-abduction thriller. Fascinated by the growing tension between American individualism and institutions such as the police, it’s a movie that puts its own dark spin on the stock cinema figures of obsessed cop and desperate vigilante parent. Where the Taken series or TV’s 24 milked the predicament of the law-enforcement figure torn between parental and professional duty, here carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a principled everyman. His belief in self-reliance combines with primal fear for his abducted daughter and drives him to kidnap and torture, while the film slowly but brazenly turns the screws on his desperation. ‘She’s wondering why I haven’t found her every day. Not you. Me,’ he spits at Detective Loki, his equally intransigent institutional shadow.

Yet this is a film where everything speaks louder than words. From its low-key Thanksgiving abduction opener, in which a parked RV in a Pennsylvania suburb seeps menace, through the tense, twisty frustrations of the investigation and the sleepwalking misery of two sets of parents, it’s a film grimly eloquent in everything except its dialogue. Cinematographer Roger Deakins’s pitilessly bleak November exteriors offer as little hope as his claustrophobic interiors, his camera peering through smeary windscreens and sneaking through corridors stalker-style. Still, in the excellent sequence where fellow parents Terrence Howard and steely Viola Davis are enlisted to help Dover torture the suspect he has kidnapped, Dover’s repeated rationale is only a blunt stub: ‘We hurt him till he talks. Or they die.’

Terse to the point of baldness, Villeneuve’s thriller is nevertheless adult for a genre piece in its unsettling exposure of the moral dilemmas thrown up by Dover’s actions. Unusually, it doesn’t implicitly endorse his behaviour Zero Dark Thirty-style, seemingly more interested in the effect on the torturer than in the question of whether torture can ever be justified. Since Paul Dano’s opaque suspect Alex Jones offers up just one impenetrable remark after blood-soaked beatings and scalding showers, what Dover mostly reaps is moral anguish. Ambiguity permeates everything in the narrative, from screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s bottomless supply of double-edged clues and narrative feints to Dover’s own motivation.

Having lingered over their depiction at grim length, Prisoners declines to opine on whether Dover’s actions transcend the rule of law. Instead it concentrates on contrasting loner and lawman; its other hero, Jake Gyllenhaal’s dogged Loki, is similarly frustrated by his inability to break the case. In setting its leading characters up as parallel and rival ‘protectors’, the film is helped by a pair of eye-catching performances, particularly that of Gyllenhaal, playing utterly against type as a brooding, isolated, blue-collar workaholic. His stifled frustrations have the edge over Jackman’s glowering, rage-filled Dover, a portrayal whose unremitting intensity recalls and redoubles his despairing Valjean in Les Misérables. Mostly the film pulls off with aplomb the tough act of giving the leading men narrative parity, conducting a tense game of story ‘tag’ between them. However, in the last act it plunges into a David Fincher-style welter of dark ritual-killing discoveries and red herrings, which feels like a deliberate distraction from Dover’s transgressions. Responding to Dover’s moral trespass with a suspenseful if over-symmetrical payback allows the film to offer a redemption that is showier than it is satisfying.

Guzikowski’s well-honed thriller (it was much admired for its expert mechanics on the 2009 ‘Black List’ of unproduced scripts) occasionally idles under Villeneuve’s dark character studies, but the director’s powerfully imposed mood of dread elevates what might otherwise have been just a superior police procedural. It puts it into the same bracket as Mystic River (2003) and Gone Baby Gone (2007), pieces unafraid to explore human wretchedness through their bleak mysteries, though it lacks the subtlety, and thus the surprise, of
In the Bedroom (2001). Dread, heralded in the film by the thuddingly obvious ‘menace’ music of Jóhann Jóhannsson, is the film’s main dish, not its seasoning. While not as extreme as Incendies (2010), Villeneuve’s Oscar-nominated breakout film, which bludgeoned the viewer with tragic coincidences until its final oedipal whammy, the predilection here for piling on the misery to the point of melodrama makes Prisoners just a tad over-egged.
Kate Stables, Sight & Sound, November 2013

Directed by: Denis Villeneuve
©: LLC Alcon Entertainment
Production Companies: 8:38 Productions, Madhouse Entertainment, Music & Digital Entertainment Office Georgia Film
An Alcon Entertainment presentation Executive Producers: Edward L. McDonnell, John H. Starke, Robyn Meisinger, Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson
Produced by: Broderick Johnson, Kira Davis, Andrew A. Kosove, Adam Kolbrenner
Co-producer: Steven P. Wegner
Unit Production Managers: Gregor Wilson, John H. Starke
Production Accountant: Anne Wilson
Location Manager: Maida Morgan
Post-production Supervisor: Brad Arensman
1st Assistant Director: Donald L. Sparks
Script Supervisor: Gail Hunter
Casting by: Kerry Barden
Casting by: Paul Schnee
LA Casting Associate: Rich Delia
NY Casting Associate: Allison Estrin
Atlanta Casting by: Tracy Kilpatrick
Written by: Aaron Guzikowski
Director of Photography: Roger A. Deakins
A Camera Operator: Roger A. Deakins
Steadicam Operator: Bela Trutz
Gaffer: Chris Napolitano
Key Grip: Mitch Lillian
Still Photographer: Wilson R. Webb
Visual Effects Producer: Tony Meagher
Visual Effects by: Pacific Title & Art Studio, Luma Pictures
Special Effects Co-ordinator: David Fletcher
Edited by: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Production Designer: Patrice Vermette
Art Director: Paul Kelly
Set Designers: Mayumi Konishi-Valentine, Aaron Linker
Set Decorator: Frank Galline
Property Master: Shawn M. Gray
Construction Co-ordinator: Curtis Crowe
Costume Designer: Renée April
Assistant Costume Designer: Margaret Robbs
Costume Supervisor: Joulles Wright
Make-up Department Head: Donald Mowat
Key Make-up Artist: Amber Crowe
Hair Department Head: Peter Tothpal
Key Hairstylists: Vincent Gideon, Taylor Knight, Elizabeth ‘Shawna’ Robinson
Main & End Titles by: Pacific Title & Art Studio
Colour by: DeLuxe
Prints by: DeLuxe
Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Electronics/Percussion/Pipe Organ/Guitar: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Score Conducted by: Ben Foster
Music Supervisor: Deva Anderson
Score Recorded at: AIR Studios (London)
Score Mixed by: Daniel Kresco
Sound Designer: Tom Ozanich
Re-recording Mixers: John Reitz, Hugo Weng
Sound Mixer: Mary H. Ellis
Supervising Sound Editor: Alan Robert Murray
Sound Effects Editors: Bub Asman, Jason King, Mark Larry
Stunt Co-ordinator: Steven Ritzi
Detective/Police Consultant: Jaime Fitzsimons
Dialect Coach: Jess Platt
Armourer: Derrick Vener
Animal Wrangler: Greg Tresan
Unit Publicist: David Linck
Digital Intermediate Provided by: EFilm

Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover)
Jake Gyllenhaal (Detective Loki)
Viola Davis (Nancy Birch)
Maria Bello (Grace Dover)
Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch)
Melissa Leo (Holly Jones)
Paul Dano (Alex Winterman Jones)
Dylan Minnette (Ralph Dover)
Zoë Soul (Eliza Birch)
Erin Gerasimovich (Anna Dover)
Kyla-Drew Simmons (Joy Birch)
Wayne Duvall (Captain Richard O’Malley)
Len Cariou (Father Patrick Dunn)
David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor)
Brad James (Officer Carter)
Anthony Reynolds (Officer Wedge)
Robert Treveiler (forensics guy)
Sandra Ellis Lafferty (Mrs Milland)
Victoria Staley (check out girl)
Todd Truley (Detective Chemelinski)

USA 2013
153 mins

Wed 1 Sep 20:00; Tue 14 Sep 14:15; Sat 25 Sep 17:00
August 32nd on Earth (Un 32 août sur terre)
Thu 2 Sep 20:50; Thu 16 Sep 18:20
Blade Runner 2049
Sat 4 Sep 20:00; Sat 18 Sep 17:15; Fri 24 Sep 14:15; Sun 3 Oct 17:30
Mon 6 Sep 18:15; Fri 17 Sep 20:55
Fri 10 Sep 21:20; Sun 19 Sep 12:15; Thu 30 Sep 20:50
Sat 11 Sep 20:30; Fri 17 Sep 17:50; Sun 19 Sep 14:45
Sun 12 Sep 18:10; Wed 22 Sep 20:40; Sat 25 Sep 20:40
Sun 12 Sep 12:20; Tue 21 Sep 20:55
Thu 16 Sep 20:45; Tue 28 Sep 14:15; Sat 2 Oct 17:30

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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
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