I’ve always drawn a distinction between a “crime film” and a “thriller”. To me, a thriller is a plot-driven film (or novel) that relies on plot twists, chases, narrow escapes, and action sequences to keep an audience riveted. Character and believability are usually sacrificed at the altar of excitement. Conversely, a crime film is a character study that focuses on the effects of violence or victimization. It depicts the ripples across a pond created by a horrific act or event. The actual workings of the investigation and its outcome are less important than their impact on a cast of characters. With award-worthy performances and a stellar script, Prisoners proves to be a near-perfect crime film that will also keep you on the edge of your seat.
The premise of Prisoners is every parents’ worst nightmare: A pair of young children run next door to find a toy or game to play with after Thanksgiving dinner, and they simply disappear. Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) search everywhere, but the two girls are nowhere to be found. When the Dover’s eldest child mentions a seedy-looking RV that was parked in the neighborhood, the two couples fear the worst.
Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is assigned to the case, and he is well aware that with each passing hour the likelihood of finding the two girls alive grows smaller and smaller. The description of the RV leads Loki to a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), who has the IQ of a 10-year-old and professes to have no knowledge of the girls or their whereabouts. When a thorough search of the young man’s RV and the home where he lives reveals no forensic links to the missing girls, Jones is released, though not necessarily exonerated. Refusing to believe that Jones is not involved in his daughter’s disappearance, Keller initiates his own investigation that causes him to question just how far he is willing to go to see what Alex Jones might know.
The events that follow are both surprising and perfectly logical. The script by Aaron Guzikowski is a masterpiece that scrupulously avoids outlandish plot twists. Prisoners never sacrifices the consistency of its characters and the believability of the unfolding events for cheap suspense. However, that doesn’t mean the film isn’t full of pulse-pounding moments. They just never come at the expense of the overall film.
The directing and cinematography are outstanding in their unobtrusiveness. The audience feels like an unseen bystander watching the events unfold on screen. There are no jarring camera cuts or cinematic pyrotechnics on display. There is one stunning aerial shot of the river and woods where the girls have disappeared that shows just how small the search party looks against the vast landscape they are covering. Without uttering a single word of dialogue, we are shown the futility of the task at hand.
Throughout the film, the audience is simply dropped into the middle of the pain, despair, and fear being experienced by these families, and we are rhetorically asked how we would react if we were in their unfortunate shoes. Likewise, we see firsthand the mounting fear in Detective Loki that this might be the one who gets away, that the children we see on milk cartons everyday were sought after for weeks and months and were never found. Director Denis Villeneuve makes the conscious choice to fade to black at unexpected moments, bypassing the usual “payoff scenes” that we have come to expect in “serious dramas”. It’s an effective technique, and the lack of histrionics serves to firmly ground the film. There is a steady undercurrent of dread and tension throughout Prisoners, and Villeneuve’s refusal to provide any easy resolutions along the way will have the audience squirming as the film nears its conclusion.
The two stand-out performances belong to Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. After watching the Australian sing in Les Miserables and dismember the Yakuza in The Wolverine, it’s easy to forget what a talented actor he is. Full of fury and perpetual motion, you can see the fear that never leaves Keller Dover’s eyes, his burning refusal to believe that he has become the head of one of those tragic families we see every night on the evening news. With his non-descript wardrobe, tattoos and unkempt appearance, Detective Loki looks nothing like the button-downed investigators we are used to seeing in crime films. But Gyllenhaal’s mannerisms and eyes are those of a man who hunts other men for a living. His gaze lingers just a moment longer than normal on anyone he is talking to as he assesses the truth of what he’s just been told. As is often the case with the best performances, Gyllenhaal conveys as much content and emotion in his silences as when he is speaking. Jackman’s role may be the flashier of the two, but Gyllenhaal’s performance is the heart of the film.
Prisoners is not without a few very minor flaws that honestly feel like nitpicking given how immensely satisfying this motion picture proves to be. For a film that smacks of reality in every scene, the puzzle pieces ultimately fall into place almost too perfectly. No real world criminal investigation is quite so tidy. And one clue/prop features so prominently in the film on several occasions, that you will likely predict the final moment of Prisoners before the screen goes dark.
So, whether you call it a thriller or a crime film or a drama is immaterial. Prisoners is one of the best films of the year regardless of genre. In fact, it’s the best crime drama I’ve seen since Mystic River (2003), and I could easily make an argument that it’s better than Clint Eastwood’s film. Making a motion picture that is both a serious crime drama and a thriller is akin to tightrope walking across a river. At some point, almost everyone who attempts it makes a misstep and gets wet. Prisoners walks across that tightrope and barely wavers at all.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.