I was trapped in a movie called Prisoners yesterday, and like a good book that you can’t put down, it was a place I didn’t want to leave. This intense thriller is one of two TIFF entries that mark Denis Villeneuve’s double-barrelled English language debut—both starring Jake Gyllenhaal. The other is Enemy. While Enemy is a small Canadian film set in the existential wastelands of Toronto and Mississauga, Prisoners is a studio picture set in America’s heartland. It arrives at TIFF on a wave of positive momentum from the Venice festival. And it catapults Quebec’s hottest director into the major league of Hollywood directors. It’s an exceptionally dark and harrowing story about the abduction of two young girls—a grisly suspense picture that verges on horror. Gyllenhaal gives the performance of his career as a laconic, tight-wound police detective trying to crack the case; the same can be said of Hugh Jackman, who is scarily explosive as a father who abducts a mentally handicapped man initially linked to his daughter’s disappearance (Paul Dano). We are deep in David Fincher territory. As a genre clinician, Villeneuve shows he’s in Fincher’s class, yet achieves a more profound level of intimacy and gravitas. As a diabolical genre piece, his film recalls Silence of the Lambs and Fincher’s Zodiac. But its stark, wintry compositions also remind us that this is the director who dramatized the Montreal massacre in Polytechnique (2009). Occasionally I got lost in the labyrinthine plot twists, but at almost two-and-a-half hours there’s not an ounce of fat on its gripping narrative. From the opening scene of hunting venison for Thanksgiving—an grim echo of The Deerhunter set to the Lord’s Prayer—it begins a procedural descent into an American darkness of unquestioning faith and almost biblical violence. And if there’s any justice in that America, Villeneuve, who was Oscar-nominated for Incendies, should see his film score in major categories. A nomination for Jackman at least seems inevitable.
Brian D. Johnson Unscreened
Brian D. Johnson on all things film, plus occasional musings about dance, theatre and other performing arts. Follow BDJ on Twitter: @briandjohnson