Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Michelle Leo
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Available on: Netflix
A stellar cast and a dark mystery elevate Denis Villeneuve's bleak drama, Prisoners, a film made fascinating by its relentless sense of dread.
Villeneuve is, of course, the man behind the magnificent Blade Runner: 2049, as well as sci-fi masterpiece Arrival, yet Prisoners, with its gritty themes and grim mood is much more aligned with searing border epic Sicario. Whatever the Canadian turns his hand to, it seems, gives rise to acclaim.
This is a sleek beast, centred around a story in which the daughters of working man Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) – a recovering alcoholic and aspiring survivalist – and his childhood friend, Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard), go missing during Thanksgiving.
Drafted in to investigate, Jake Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki (never granted a first name) soon collars a suspect, Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Under questioning, however, it becomes clear that Jones lacks the intellectual capability to effectively abduct two young girls. And it is at this point that the gloom spreads, families and police left with no obvious leads. Dover is quickly driven to seek his own answers.
Much of the picture's success rests on the work done by Gyllenhaal, who offers up a brilliantly layered and forensic performance as the watchful loner cop tasked with unravelling the puzzle. Inscrutable, quietly obsessive and possessed of his own undefined scars, Loki's doggedness serves him well. Dressed in anonymous attire, Gyllenhaal renders the investigator heroic, in a cold sort of way, imbuing him with an innate, if unsmiling, sense of nobility.
Beside him at the top of the bill, Jackman is superb as a man driven beyond the bounds of reason and legality by the spectre of every parent's worst nightmare. The erstwhile Wolverine mixes rage and vulnerability with a laser-focused desire for the truth, regardless of the cost to his humanity.
Michelle Leo also stands out as Jones's aunt, Holly. A wonderfully effortless actor, Leo's homely, no-nonsense work grounds the action and when she's on screen the faint air of hysteria sweeping through the narrative is significantly reined in. Dano, too, is as strange and hypnotic as ever. The question of what his aloof innocent did or didn't do nibbles at the edges of the plot all the way to the end.
The remainder of a terrific line-up provides capable support throughout. Maria Bello, in particular, channels the despair of a terrified mother, while Howard and Oscar winner Viola Davis are more pragmatic in what they are prepared to accept for the sake of their child.
Legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins colours it all with the greys and browns of the wintry Pennsylvanian backdrop, a faceless suburban landscape ably reflecting the misery of the tale. That said, he does throw in a few visual highlights here and there: a frantic race through traffic in the middle of a stormy night; the rain-drenched arrest of Jones; a lantern-lit evening vigil providing a rare moment of warmth.
By the finale, Prisoners proves itself a muscular and unremittingly powerful thriller, burning slow but steady. Villeneuve's plotting holds up and builds towards a weighty, twisting conclusion that feels as accomplished as it does satisfying.