Quebec director Denis Villeneuve is slowly building a reputation for delivering high-stakes, jarring, often brutal human drama filtered through a delicate, almost serene cinematic sensibility. Having already spent an admirable career at the forefront of Canadian independent cinema—with films like Maelström, Polytechnique and the Oscar-nominated Incendies—Villeneuve has now, like so many Canadian filmmakers before him, stepped into the world of big-budget, star-studded Hollywood drama. In the hands of someone like Villeneuve, though, this big-budget, star-studded Hollywood drama doesn't feel like such a departure from the string of indie hits he's been crafting all along.
With Prisoners, Villeneuve draws us into a deep, dark maze of a movie, full of mistrust, suspicion and moral conundrums. Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) is a carpenter in a sleepy little logging town with his wife (Maria Bello), teenage son and young daughter. As the film begins, the Dovers share a peaceful Thanksgiving dinner with the neighbours (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) and their two daughters, and we get a glimpse into their blissful middle-class existence. When the young daughters of each family suddenly go missing, it's up to an inscrutable police detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) to try to find them, and piece together the increasingly dense mystery.
Any film that deals with the subject of child abduction is already opening up the imagination to any number of horrible possibilities, and the genius of this film, as the cliché goes, is what it doesn't show—in fact, some of the worst examples of human behaviour depicted onscreen are the actions of the distraught father as he delves deeper into the rabbit hole of desperation and revenge. This is a very confrontational, uncomfortable film, and in that sense, not a very fun time at the movies.
However, it is an expertly crafted story, and Villeneuve's artistic sensibilities are only improved with some amazing talent at his disposal, including Paul Dano and Melissa Leo in supporting roles, Icelandic avant-garde composer Jóhann Jóhannsson doing the score, and the brilliant Roger Deakins behind the camera. This may not be a popcorn-date movie, but Prisoners is a shadowy masterpiece, as beautiful as it is challenging.