The last few years for Denis Villeneuve have been exceptional. Off the back of the tremendously tense Sicario, he directed the critically acclaimed sci-fi mystery Arrival, and his next film is none other than Blade Runner 2049. Back in 2013 he directed his first English language film: Prisoners.
This (rather depressingly) dark and intense thriller tells the story of the abduction of two young girls in Pennsylvania and troubling steps one father (Hugh Jackman) decides he must take to find them. Both disturbing and powerful, this film explores thought-provoking themes and the murky grey area between good and evil.
However, despite its bold and intriguing premise, the film suffers from an overly-long runtime (one hundred and fifty-three minutes) and over complicated plotlines. Prisoners is trying to be two different films; a dark moody morality tale (like elements of Sicario) and, later, a brain teasing mystery (a bit like Arrival). A straight focus on either would have been preferred to the final mash-up of both, with the former being the best option.
The first two-thirds follow Jackman’s character as he makes questionable decisions as he tries to locate his daughter without the police’s help. It really makes you think about what you would do in the same situation. It includes some of the best, and most tense, moments of the film. Then the final third slips into the more standard mystery thriller. Had the film scrapped that element entirely, it could have been a much more focused and original piece. It could have shaved of around thirty minutes, as well as entire sub-plots and characters that felt unnecessary and baggy.
Despite these issues, I was kept engaged by the film, mostly thanks to Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal (playing the detective in charge of the case), who both offer some of their very best work. At its tensest, Prisoners is a real nail-biter, and some moments are particularly uncomfortable (in a good way). Most of the violence is kept off screen, which keeps it from being glorified, and therefore makes it more impactful.
Prisoners marks the first time Villeneuve worked with director of photography Roger Deakins (they would reunite for Sicario and Blade Runner 2049). The resulting cinematography is unsurprisingly excellent. The weather plays a big part in the most stunning shots, with a speeding car shot in heavy snow being particularly breath-taking.
Despite its flaws, Prisoners remained exciting and entertaining. It would be improved by streamlining, and it feels like Villeneuve has done this with his later work. Within its lengthy runtime is a top-notch morality thriller, which, at times, managed to reveal the talent that has made Villeneuve one of the most exciting directors working today.