Review: Prisoners (TIFF 2013)

Last Updated on August 5, 2021

PLOT: A rural New England community is shaken to the core by the abduction of two six-year-old girls. When the key suspect in the abduction is let go by the police due to a lack of evidence, the father of one of the girls, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) takes the law into his own hands.

REVIEW: If all you know about Denis Villeneuve's PRISONERS is based on the trailers, you don't know much about it at all. Don't worry though, that's just the way it should be. Having just played to rave reviews at Telluride, and all but sure to do the same thing at TIFF, you'll be reading and hearing lots and lots about the film between now and it's general release on September 20th. And when the public gets to see it opening day, wow, just you wait. This will be THE water-cooler movie of the fall, and the one everyone's going to have an opinion about.

I was lucky in that I got to see it knowing very little about the film other than that which I got from the first preview, which, I must say was rather ingeniously done as it gives away virtually nothing that happens outside the first forty minutes of the lengthy two and a half hour running time. Rest assured, I'm not going to be the jerk that spoils the movie, so if this review comes off a little vague, it's only to avoid ruining any of the film's surprises, which kept me on the edge of my seat through the entire running time.

In fact, as soon as I walked out of PRISONERS, I emailed my editor here to tell him “PRISONERS makes SE7EN look like BLAZING SADDLES.” I don't mean that PRISONERS is as violent as Fincher's masterpiece, but it's similarly disturbing, perhaps even more so in that it's a film about adults hurting children, which is without a doubt the most heinous crime imaginable. In fact, PRISONERS isn't terribly gruesome, but on an emotional level it's nothing short of devastating. When it was over, I felt like going somewhere to cry for half an hour, as that's how drained I was by it's power. It exposes us to an evil that's terrifying simply due to the fact that it's so real.

With PRISONERS, Denis Villeneuve certainly establishes himself as one of our major filmmakers, and he'll no doubt be rocketing to the top of the A-list, regardless of whether or not this makes a dime (although many people are predicting this is going be an Oscar contender, which it most certainly deserves to be). If you've seen INCENDIES, Villeneuve's Oscar-nominated Quebecois movie from a few years ago, you'll know this guy is already a master, and truly, PRISONERS is the work of a genius. It should be said, he's helped immeasurably by the brilliant script by Aaron Guzikowski, which for once is a black list winner that lives up to the hype. The cinematography by the great Roger Deakins also gives this a striking look, with it initially boasting a reserved colour palette, only to get more and more explosive as the film goes on.

However, as good a job as Villeneuve did, I wasn't surprised that he delivered a hell of a film. I expect that from him. What really threw me for a loop were the performances. Everyone loves Hugh Jackman. He's personable, handsome, can sing, dance, act, do action, etc. But, Jackman has never had a role that's pushed him to the brink like this one has. His Keller Dover is a fascinating character. On the surface, he seems like some kind of bible-thumping cliche, with the first scene showing him teaching his son to hunt, before showing us his survival gear-filled cellar, and listening to him pray. But, Jackman doesn't play Dover like a fanatic. Yes, he's religious, and probably more than a little paranoid. But, he's also a doting dad, a loving husband, and a great friend to the sophisticated family next door (headed by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis– both of whom are at their best) who like him enough to invite him and his family to spend Thanksgiving with them.

Once the girls are kidnapped, Jackman's character eventually gets so primal and boiling with rage that he makes Wolverine look milquetoast by comparison. There's a scene where Jackman offhandedly smashes a sink to bits with a hammer, just by bringing it down a little too hard that will make you gasp. Jackman's like a caged animal, and his fury, while justified, is terrifying in it's intensity.

As the second lead, Jake Gyllenhaal makes an interesting contrast. A young cop with a chip on his shoulder, Gyllenhaal is everything Jackman's not in this, from the tattoos on his neck and fingers, to his often cool, but compassionate demeanour. Between this and END OF WATCH, Gyllenhaal's starting to excel at playing cops, and while he initially takes a back seat to Jackman (who's clearly relishing the role of his life), he ends up giving a performance that's just as gripping as Jackman's.

The same goes for Paul Dano, as the mentally challenged prime suspect, and Melissa Leo as his guardian. Both subvert the audience's expectations at every turn, as neither plays the kind of stock character you'd expect from a film like this. Dano often has a tendency to go big in his performances, but here he plays his character strikingly quiet, making him difficult to read, and even sympathetic. Leo's performance was even more difficult to grasp, with her motivations never being clear until they absolutely have to be.

I really can't praise PRISONERS highly enough, as to me it feels like some kind of masterpiece. It's without a doubt the best movie I've seen this year, and I'd be gobsmacked if anything else plays at TIFF (or heck, even comes out this year) that measures up to it. To me, the ultimate key to a movie's success is how much of an effect it had on me emotionally. This one left me a wreck, and will likely do the same to even the most jaded viewer.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.