On Thanksgiving Day, two families are together celebrating and their daughters are kidnapped in broad daylight. The town families are consumed with dread. The mystery begins. Denis Villeneuve’s Suburbanoir follows a week in these characters lives. Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover, one of the fathers whose daughter have been kidnapped. The other father is played, reserved and quiet, by Terrence Howard. Dover’s a religious man through and through. However, his set of ideals are blurred. Through moral ambiguity the movie constantly questions the decisions of characters in the face of a broken suburbia. This is furthered by Jake Gyllenhaal as Det. Loki, the cop assigned to their case. When the system causes those working in it to become prisoners to the system, what does one do? Is it morally right to break the law?
The prime suspect of the kidnapping is Alex, played creepily and mysterious by the creepy and mysterious Paul Dano. Is he the culprit? The movie weaves through a plot like a maze that twists and turns. The viewer tags along with Loki as he tries to solve this case and arrives at dead ends. Villeneuve shows great skill at creating atmosphere here. The script he’s working with plays like a lesser version of Fincher’s Se7en or Zodiac, but it’s a consistently gripping ride, even if it doesn’t amount to as much as you’d hope. For such an exciting maze it’s riddled with conveniences and criminal minds-eqsue villainy.
But the level of craftsmanship here is undeniable. The atmospheric tension throughout is great although Villeneuve doesn’t seem to have a great handle on jumping from plot point to plot point — making the film feel more like an episode of TV than a crime saga. With that said, he’s incredibly talented at world building and is able to craft suffocating suspense in the film’s darker moments.
The best element here is Roger Deakins’ dark and ominous cinematography, which paints the suburban Pennsylvania community with despair. Each shot is composed brilliantly and makes the movie more interesting than the script often is. What Se7en did for the “city,” Prisoners does for “suburbia.”
The film is a study of how different people deal with dark experiences. Whether it be to take direct action or become numb with sadness, the film explores this idea through characters’ reactions. There’s a heavy-handed war on terror allegory weaved throughout that feels like extra weight and too on-the-nose to work.
There is a version of this film that is not much better than a Criminal Minds episode. But it has a more artful quality throughout that deepens its mystery. Snakes, crosses, and biblical passages are abundant and because it’s organically intertwined into the story, it feels rich, and worth exploring. In some ways — and here the credit goes to Villeneuve — this a horror movie. The threat and presence is real and executed with vision. The script doesn’t rise to the same level, but there’s power here. What’s most frightening is the level of humanity that leaks from a seemingly normal neighborhood. As I stated before, ambiguity is present. It’s certainly up to debate if Villeneuve lands it all, but he really goes for it.
Villeneuve tries to ride a wave of ambiguity towards the end but I think Dover and Loki’s relationship needed a little more pathos to justify the ending. This maze-like script needed a bit more room to breathe and its final turn is much too obvious. And yet the final moments had my heart pounding and my mind thinking. Prisoners rises above convention to become a worthwhile entry in the thriller genre.
Prisoners imprints itself in your mind with a haunting presence through its filmmaking and damaged characters. Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman give two of their greatest performances to date. Director Dennis Villeneuve is one to look out for with his mastery of atmosphere. No, this is not anywhere near crime thrillers like Zodiac, Se7en or Silence of the Lambs, but it’s trying to be, and that has value. The symbolism and allegory is heavy handed and outweighs the characters, but if you’re invested then you won’t notice. Prisoners dares to stare into broad daylight, and while it doesn’t illuminate as much as it wishes, it forces you to stare with it.