Thriller is truly a fascinating genre in cinema. Even if one has seen all kinds of films that exists in this category; whether it’s with or without suspense, mysteries, full of twists & turns or are simply no-nonsense intense drama, there always comes along at least one feature on an annual basis that manages to challenge us with its originality or unpredictability in ways that’s surprising & exciting at the same time. One of the films, if not the only, that accomplished this rare feat during last year is Prisoners; a very tensely crafted cinematic maze of intense emotions & moral complexities which with the help of its clever plot, intricate script, strong religious themes, ensemble cast & stellar performances creates a darkly disturbing & grim atmosphere of uncertainty that looms over this film from start to finish.
Set in Pennsylvania, Prisoners tells the story of Keller Dover; a deeply religious man who cares a lot for his family & believes in being prepared for the worst at all times. On Thanksgiving Day, when the Dover family is getting together for dinner with their neighbours, the Birches, the families’ two youngest daughters go missing. As minutes turn into hours, the panic starts setting in & when the girls don’t return, the families call the police fearing that they might have been kidnapped. Spearheading the case is the dedicated officer, Detective Loki, who so far has solved every single case assigned to him and is working day & night to get this latest job done. But when the police fails to make any breakthroughs for days & release the arrested suspect due to lack of evidence, Keller takes matters into his own hands & sets out to find his daughter by targeting the prime suspect in order to get the required information out of him before it’s too late.
Directed by Denis Villeneuve, the writer-director of Academy Award nominated Canadian masterpiece Incendies, Prisoners carries the very riddles & moral complications of the director’s previous work and these elements eventually end up playing a major role in shaping up the whole experience of this film. The screenplay is expertly written including the arc developments of its characters as they are given many dimensions to explore in the script. Among the technical aspects, the most vital contribution comes from Roger Deakins’ cinematography as the entire film has a dark & mysterious ambience enveloping it & even the sequences filmed in minimum light are able to retain a crisp clarity. Further amplifying the film’s tension is its steady editing that firmly aids in character development & provides a relaxed but effective progression to the story. And finally, the score has an understated presence in the film but wherever it’s noticeable, it does its job of evoking the desired emotions from its viewers.
Coming to the performances, Prisoners boasts a pretty strong cast in Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Terrence Howard & others and every single one of them have done a brilliant job in adding the human dimension to this dark portrait. Hugh Jackman delivers an emotionally charged performance as Keller Dover; the panic-stricken father of the missing girl who takes law into his own hands when police is unable to make any progress. Jake Gyllenhaal impresses the most with his knockout portrayal of Detective Loki; a dedicated officer who’s assigned this perplexing case, and the clashes between Keller & Loki throughout the film are a treat to watch. Paul Dano plays Alex Jones; a developmentally disabled bloke who becomes the first suspect in the case & is later abducted by Keller for questioning. Terrence Howard & Viola Davis play the Birches; Dover’s neighbours, and last but not the least, we have Melissa Leo as Alex’s aunt, Holly Jones & although her character seems like a filler, it actually plays an important role in the film’s events.
In my opinion, what really sets this film apart from the norms of its genre is that the emphasis isn’t on how the crime took place or how the case was solved but majorly on the devastating change an event like this can bring in any person. Jackman as Keller Dover is an everyman & shows one side of what a father might do if stuck in the same situation. Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch presents another side of the same coin. And on some level, the film is a clash between the judicial system that is bound by rules & has to follow a set of procedures while solving every case and a suffering & panicking family that is on the brink of a breakdown & may not have as much patience as the police to get the results. There are also many religious allegories, ethical issues & symbolism present in the film that can easily go unnoticed and that’s why, a revisit makes some sense in this case. At last, on an overall scale, Prisoners is a labyrinth of moral & ethical ambiguities represented through the degeneration of an immensely faithful & God-fearing person into a remorseless sinner, all exhibited in a darkly compelling manner that’s worth your time & money.