Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Movie Review: PRISONERS

Welcome back to this mini-series of reviews of the feature films* of revered filmmaker Denis Villeneuve in the lead-up to his latest film Arrival. This fourth review in the series is for his 2013 film Prisoners.

Prisoners is Denis Villeneuve’s fifth feature film and by far his most commercially successful and broadly appealing. This film tells the story of a pair of couples and a police detective as they search for the two young daughters who are abducted early in the film. Although this film is Villeneuve’s most broadly appealing, it is still an emotionally trying and challenging film as it asks how far it is ok for a parent to go in an effort to find their child. This film stars Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Mellissa Leo, and Dylan Minette. It is also the first film that started the beautiful collaboration between Villeneuve and acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins.

Without mincing words, it is really unfair in a competition as against other filmmakers to give a director with the talent of Villeneuve a cast this good and access to arguably the greatest cinematographer of all time. Villeneuve absolutely takes advantage of all of these tools and made a really great film. This film is a gripping mystery and Villeneuve pulls on all the right emotional threads to keep the audience engaged throughout. I think the way the story unfolds at very different paces (quickly at the start and then slowly over most of the film) was really effective and kept me guessing what was going on.

A big standout in this film were the performances. Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal each steal the show in their own way. Jackman plays a father who is broken by this situation. He is a man of deep conviction who makes you really look at yourself and wonder what you would do given the situation. Gyllenhaal is very reserved and is a hard read throughout the film but you do see him slowly peel back the layers of this well constructed mystery. Paul Dano also really nails his role and is a complicated figure in the story. In truth, all the supporting performances added exactly what they needed to to the film and were overwhelming believable. The level of these performances really made this film as great as it is.

With access to Roger Deakins, Villeneuve did not fail to use him to his highest as this is one of the most beautiful films I have ever seen. The way shots are done, light is used, things are framed, and the way camera is moved through scenes is brilliant throughout this film and I couldn’t help but see each frame of this two-and-a-half-hour film as an absolute artistic masterstroke. Toward the end of this film there is a driving scene with a car in the rain at night urgently trying to get somewhere and it is one of the most immaculately shot scenes I have ever seen. The way it pulls in and out of different perspectives of this scene and uses the orange of streetlights and the rain to obscure what is happening makes the movement of the vehicle uncertain and risky and had me incredibly stressed out solely due to the brilliant camera artistry in depicting a scene that a lessor cinematographer or director would have made look either mundane or totally unrealistic. As good as Villeneuve proved to be with camera work in his films, his partnership with Deakins is truly a privilege as fans of cinema as they really combine their skills to make a truly beautiful thing.

I had very few issues with this film, however I did have one reasonably substantial issue: the ending was too unbelievable to fit with the rest of what happens in the film. Without giving away what happens I just found the eventual conclusion of the mystery, and of the film in general, to be drawn out of more unrealistic and hokey mystery tales than the gripping one being told in this film. Also, though the film was paced interestingly it was a touch overlong.

Overall, I think Prisoners is brilliant and yet another huge win for the resume of Denis Villeneuve. It is gorgeously shot, brilliantly acted, and gripping from start to finish. It is one of his most conventional films, but that isn’t a bad thing necessarily. This is a film that any mature film fan can watch and enjoy and that is a very strong thing to say.

Ryan’s Score: 9/10

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* This series of reviews will include all of Villenueve’s features except the 2000 film Malestrom due to it being highly difficult to obtain prior to the start of this series.

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