Sean K. Cureton

The Contemporary Thriller as a Study in Silence

In Movie Reviews: 2013 on September 28, 2013 at 1:05 pm
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

Prisoners
Directed by Denis Villeneuve
3 ½ out of 4 stars

Prisoners is the most recent film to be released from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, whose previous films include 2010’s Incendies, a foreign language Oscar nominated drama set in the Middle East, and 2009’s Polytechnique, which was inspired by the events surrounding the Montreal Massacre of 1989. While Villeneuve’s new film is by no means a change in tone or subject matter, it is the first film of his to boast an all-star cast of top Hollywood players. Ranging from the formidable presence of Hugh Jackman, to Jake Gyllenhaal’s disarming charm, Prisoners solidifies itself as a major motion picture that is sure to turn the larger mainstream movie going audience onto the work of this singular director. Villeneuve’s new film is a shocking take on the contemporary thriller, telling a story about child abduction, which is both satisfyingly exciting as well as cinematically challenging. With Prisoners, Villeneuve has established himself as a director to watch more closely, and with mounting anticipation.

Unlike many contemporary Hollywood thrillers having to do with the case of child abduction, Prisoners is relieving in the honesty it takes with its subject and the sincerity it displays towards its characters. Instead of treating its volatile subject as fodder for an outright emotional manipulation of the viewer’s instincts and feelings, the film instead chooses to examine the feelings of the characters, thereby focusing on atmosphere and mood rather than plot and action centered theatrics. Such a choice in terms of focus lends the film much of its cinematic vibrancy and effectiveness, in turn allowing for some of the best career performances from its leading actors. Hugh Jackman is finally able to bear some of the feral menace which his recent turns as the Marvel comic book character Wolverine have only ever hinted at, Jake Gyllenhaal turns in one of his most mature and varied performances of his entire career, and Terrance Howard displays a sense of fragile humanity as the quietly grieving father not seen since his turn in the Oscar winning 2004 drama Crash. The performances given from the actors cast in Villeneuve’s film alone raise Prisoners above the level of the average child abduction thriller, but it is due to the intelligence and sentimentality of Villeneuve’s direction by which their performances are lead and inspired to such stunning heights.

In addition to the subtle directing choices of Villeneuve, and without which the film would not be nearly as gripping and terrifying, Prisoners is also shot to cinematic perfection by the inestimable cinematographer Roger Deakins. Deakins, already a household name attached to such contemporary film staples as The Shawshank Redemption as well as a large portion of the Coen Brothers’ films, takes in the subject and atmosphere of Villeneuve’s film, and interprets its said vision into a visual reality which is claustrophobic in its use of shadows and slate grey skies, and unrelenting in its consistent beauty and foreboding terror. In watching Deakins’ work, it feels almost as if the camera were another way inside the characters’ heads, visually representing their inner turmoil and despair in a way which is almost more accurate than the performances given by the actors themselves. When the more trying scenes of the film unfold, which depict such morally depraved or emotionally vacant occurrences as torture and mental instability, Deakins’ camera watches over with a persistent steadiness without ever sacrificing the film’s sentimental tone and human approach. Rather than continuing in the line of such hard-to-watch films as David Fincher’s Seven, with which Prisoners shares a lot in common with in terms of aesthetic approach, Deakins’ cinematography dispels any of the coldness of Fincher’s work, and distinguishes Prisoners as importantly and fundamentally different in its representation of the macabre and the depraved.

With the release of Prisoners, French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve has delivered his first major motion picture sure to reach a wide audience. Where his previous films might not have had as wide an appeal to mainstream American audiences due to their being foreign language pictures, Prisoners is the first film in Villeneuve’s career to utilize recognizable Hollywood actors, thereby enhancing the accessibility of his work. What’s more, Prisoners is a breathtaking study in silence, examining the impotent rage and horror of its characters as they attempt to reclaim what has been lost. Villeneuve abandons the use of sudden jolts of adrenaline more commonly seen in other mainstream thrillers, and instead allows the plot, setting, and characters to be divulged over the course of a stunningly bold 2 1/2 hours. Every minute of Prisoners’ lengthy run time increases the viewers own anxiety and anticipation, ensuring their rapt and sympathetic attention to what might otherwise have been an obvious and clichéd resolution, making Villeneuve’s new feature a powerful film that begs to be seen.

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