Prisoners ★★★★½

How was I completely unaware of this film? It's directed by the wonderfully accomplished Denis Villeneuve (with a sterling roster of films I’ve never seen), captured by the masterful Roger Deakins, and with a score composed by Jóhann Jóhannsson, a talented Icelandic producer/composer whom I discovered a few years ago and immediately fell in love with. Add to that the obvious assets of a stacked cast featuring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano and Maria Bello, as well as the experienced editing talents of a Joel Cox/Gary Roach tag-team, and you’ve got the building blocks for a masterclass of cinema - and a beautiful blend of powerful new voices and accomplished experts. Prisoners does all of this justice, with talent to spare.

It’s a dark film - both tonally and visually - with increasingly haunting moments and vivid set pieces that will effortlessly get under your skin. Comparisons to Zodiac and Se7en are completely valid, a perfect balance of ferocity, despair, intrigue and what can only be described as real evil. It’s an exploration of what people are capable of doing to each other, and the horrible parallels that exist at both ends of the spectrum of good and evil. With a script that weaves its characters together while never giving too much away, the unfolding maze of a story constantly holds tension to the breaking point while feeding you pieces of the puzzle as it gradually becomes full-picture.

Tying the whole piece together stylistically is the fabulously nuanced and beautifully composed work of Deakins, with sophisticated and at times off-putting camera movements and a careful control of light and atmosphere. Prisoners is a dark film, with much of its action occurring at night, but the creepiness of the damp Pennsylvania suburbs in the fall are equally well-envisioned even during the day. All of this visual impact is put to good use to augment and amplify the disturbing events, and it’s in the moments where Deakins controls what we’re able to see - and not see - that some of the most impactful moments are expressed. But it’s also in the depth of expression in Jóhannsson’s score, often built upon a constant drone as if a breath being held, that the emotional tone of the film is reinforced. His work here isn’t overpowering, and with Villeneuve’s skills at withholding and discharging tension there’s a sense of restraint present here that makes you really notice the scenes without any music as much as you notice those reinforced by it.

But to say nothing of the talented cast would do a huge disservice to what really carries the film. Jackman is completely relentless as Keller Dover, a father desperate to find his daughter, and seems to run through the complete gamut of human emotions at full power, as if concentrated through a nozzle with utmost focus. It’s easily his best work since The Fountain, and a benchmark for his potential as a performer. Gyllenhaal infuses Detective Loki, his character, with uncompromising determination, and it’s in the moments where that determination fails him that we see a multi-faceted character instead of the two-dimensional brooding goon to whom we are first introduced. Loki is full of interesting character decisions, from less-than-subtle physical tics to allusions to a difficult career and hard life, and Gyllenhaal is firing on all cylinders, completely up to the task of meeting Jackman’s energy. Howard and Davis largely stay out of the way of the leads, while Leo’s character becomes an interesting and compelling one in her own right as the movie comes to full boil. Paul Dano also delivers a fine performance, albeit in a role that doesn’t lend itself to high praise but is fundamental to the fabric of the narrative. It’s in Maria Bello’s and Dylan Minnette’s characters (Jackman/Dover’s wife and son) that we see the only real weakness in the character department, but it’s largely due to a sprawling storyline and rich cast that these characters ultimately get the short end of the stick.

A film like this, by a director who I have heard of but have never been exposed to, is one that commands attention - making me want to work through his filmography and discover all that he has brought to life. Prisoners is a film that demonstrates how all of the crafts of filmmaking can come together and make something truly memorable - a thriller with an engaging story, infused with style, and compellingly delivered by its cast. It’s not a short film, clocking in at over two and a half hours, but with incredible attention to pacing, consideration to craft, and strength of plot, it’s a film that will serve as a yardstick for all films - and not just dark, moody crime thrillers - for years to come.