Early on in Prisoners, we see Jake Gyllenhaal eating alone in an empty Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving. This is the only backstory we ever get about the detective he portrays, Loki, throughout the entire film, and yet cue the most enthralling performance of his career. His tattoos, fashion sense, hairstyle. His sweeping movements from raw anger to determined professionalism. His tic and his unconventional mode of wielding a pistol.
With great actors left, right and centre, Prisoners explores how we deal with extreme tragedy. At one point early on, the camera crawls forward, close to a single tree trunk in front of a house, seemingly focusing on nothing and everything, and it’s extremely creepy – from here on out you’re going to be sitting very stiff on your seat. The tension isn’t the only reason the two and a half hours speed by, the balance of character and plot grapples with the audience’s attention and doesn’t let go – it throttles and throws you about. To mind, the only other American thrillers that pull off this kind of running time are Zodiac and Mystic River, both of which are also artfully developed and crafted. The difference being Prisoners is better.
Roger Deakins’ masterful photography makes this thriller, lacking in shootouts and car chases (and why should it), stunning, stressed, artistic and cinematic. The film is unflinchingly violent, yet mainly the violence is shown in its aftermath or through sound, leaving your mind to imagine the worst. In some cases, the worst you can imagine is probably what’s happening. The audience I was part of gasped at a static close-up and communally held its breath as one character smashes apart a sink. Filmmaking expertise.
The concept of missing children, a father doing all that he can to find her and a detective mostly sticking by the rules may seem like broad strokes and fable-like, but that is to ignore the symbolism and allegory embedded. If you look for it, there really is a morally complex heart beating away in this metaphor-laden film. The film avoids a political stance; one character isn’t favoured over any other, and the plot chooses to mirror the realities of America rather than go with the particular screenwriter’s disposition. I imagine this is pulled off so effortlessly with thanks to the French director – an outsider.
Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist, The French Connection) has put this with the ranks of Psycho and Seven. He isn’t alone with such statements; the five star reviews flood in. My instinct tells me this is hyperbole that won’t live with the passage of time, but I do hope it doesn’t go forgotten and will be given its deserved place in the canon of cinema. - James A. George is Eyewear's chief film critic.