Prisoners (2013, Denis Villeneuve)

Director Villeneuve takes a very interesting approach to how a thriller works with Prisoners. He ignores it. During the first act, there are quite a few flirtations with thriller standards. But the film almost always immediately dismisses them–like Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski are holding up a standard, tossing it away. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s music helps them through these quick examinations, as does Roger Deakins’s photography. Villeneuve gets some truly astounding shots with Deakins. Many are so good one wonders how Villeneuve resisted showing off. He never does.

That restraint carries over to the performances as well. Prisoners is constantly difficult. In theory, the four primary actors should be Hugh Jackman, Maria Bello, Viola Davis and Terrence Howard. They play two couples who have had their daughters abducted, they should be the leads. Well, them and Jake Gyllenhaal as the primary detective.

But no. And there’s another break–Gyllenhaal doesn’t have a partner. When’s the last time a movie cop didn’t have a partner. But Jackman takes matters into his own hands and the film juxtapositions his pursuit against Gyllenhaal’s. They aren’t alter egos; Guzikowski wouldn’t never be so simplistic. The script’s phenomenal.

Both Jackman and Gyllenhaal are amazing. Gyllenhaal wins out. He has a more complicated role and more screen time.

Great supporting work from Davis and Wayne Duvall. Bello and Howard have the least to do in the film, another of Villeneuve and Guzikowski’s plays on expectations. They’re both good. There’s no weak performances.

Prisoners is truly exceptional.

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