Director Denis Villeneuve’s Incendies was in my top five films of 2011, with its twisting plot, gritty performances and devastating revelations. If you missed it, I urge you to rent it today.
Cannily, the French-Canadian director has hopped across the border to a cast headed by a flawless Jake Gyllenhaal and a hardworking Hugh Jackman in another gut-wrenching family drama, this time surrounding the disappearance of two young girls.
Following an immersive set-up thanks to typically stunning photography by Roger Deakins (favourite of those quality filmmakers Sam Mendes and the Coen Brothers), little Anna and Joy swiftly vanish and their parents must grapple with the likelihood they may be gone for good. Local weirdo Alex (I hate to call him that, but the signposting of Paul Dano’s oversized glasses and low IQ isn’t one of the film’s subtler aspects) becomes prime suspect, and when Gyllenhaal’s twitchy, tattooed cop fails to keep him in custody, Jackman’s zealot of a father takes matters into his own hands. Meanwhile, family bonds are tested while the rain falls across a bleak, despairing landscape of suburban strip malls and liquor stores.
Shot through doorways and windows alternately obscured by grime, rain or steam, the extremely grim tone of the initially plausible story makes for difficult, if gripping, viewing. In a film wall to wall with Oscar nominees, Gyllenhaal and Jackson are great alone and together, with strong support from Viola Davis and a hard-faced Melissa Leo.
Narratively it’s gruelling, not least for its two and a half hour running time, and pedants may query some of the plot choices. Without quite the impact of Incendies, Prisoners is still a finely-made piece of cinema which is considerably higher in brow than most of the current fare.