Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” (2013)

Notable Festivals: Telluride

Following the international breakout success of his 2010 feature, INCENDIES, director Denis Villeneuve found himself perched on the precipice of a career in the American studio system. Before taking the plunge, however, he’d indulge himself with a pair of short experimental art films— neither of which appear to be available to the public currently. The first, which boasts the admittedly unwieldy title of ETUDE EMPIRIQUE SUR L’INFLUENCE DU SON SUR LA PERSISTANCE RÉTINIENNE (2011), is apparently more akin to an art installation than a short film in the conventional sense. Running for just one minute, the film is described by IMDB as a “series of flashing green and red screens set to music”. Reportedly, this creates the illusion of different patterns in the mind’s eye, all of which react to the music. The second, RATED R FOR NUDITY, concerns itself with three acts that unfold during an “experimental session of attempted mass hypnosis” (1). Without seeing either, it’s difficult to speculate on how they fit into Villeneuve’s body of work. Going by their IMDB descriptions alone, however, it’s not a stretch to imagine them as experimental manifestations of his ongoing exploration of the “psychosphere”— a term recently coined by the creators of the HBO series TRUE DETECTIVE which attempts to describe the general ambience that arises from a collective cultural psyche; the interior state manifest within the visual world. In retrospect, it’s clear that this theoretical state was set to become a dominant aspect of Villeneuve’s artistic aesthetic.

While Villeneuve was at work on these experimental art projects, the project that would become his American studio debut was quietly circulating through the paces of development. After landing a coveted top spot on the 2009 Blacklist, an annual listing of the best-liked scripts as determined by industry executives, writer Aaron Guzikowski’s original script, “Prisoners”, found itself the subject of serious attention (1). First set up as a directing vehicle for Bryan Singer starring Mark Wahlberg and Christian Bale, the project’s long development cycle saw names as varied as Antoine Fuqua and Leonardo DiCaprio attached before ultimately securing a director in the guise of the rapidly-ascendant Villeneuve. Working from a $46 million product budget overseen by producers Andrew A. Kosove, Kira David, Adam Kolbrenner, and Broderick Johnson, Villeneuve would prove to be an inspired choice: the escalating technical and thematic sophistication of his French-language Canadian films makes for a rock-solid foundation upon which PRISONERS’ bold narrative twists and somber aura of mystery could stand firm against any wary audience disbelief. One of the standout films of the 2010’s, PRISONERS is something of a herald, announcing the arrival of a towering new voice in American film.

PRISONERS takes its title from the notion that we are all prisoners to our respective traumas, forced to live with the consequences of our actions or the actions of others. This sentiment hangs over the film like a death shroud, deepening what could otherwise have easily been a pulpy genre tale about the search for a kidnapped child. Set in contemporary, exurban Pennsylvania, the story assumes the clashing perspectives of Keller Dover and Detective Loki: two men who share the same goal: find and rescue a pair of little girls who seemingly vanished into the thin air of a cold Thanksgiving afternoon. 

Dover, played by a never-better Hugh Jackman as an increasingly desperate father quickly running out of patience with the laws of man, finds that the only way he’s going to find his daughter alive is to turn to lawlessness. He’s a faithful, devout Christian confronted with an evil he can’t comprehend, and in trying to confront it, he quickly falls into darkness himself. Evoking the political reaction to the devastation of 9/11 and the subsequent manhunt for those responsible, Dover takes to abducting his only lead and spiriting him away to a hidden location, brutally torturing him until he gets the information he wants. A swirl of timely socioeconomic factors compound his desperation— he’s a recovering alcoholic and the downwardly-mobile owner of a small carpentry business. His family and his faith are the only things he has, so this particular problem puts him in a position where he can quite literally lose everything. He’s also an avid hunter and survivalist— he’s what we’d know describe as a prepper, his basement obsessively stocked with food and all sorts of supplies in case of emergency. The irony, of course, is that all the prepping in the world could never prepare him for this emergency. In going to such a profoundly dark place, Jackman capably subverts his charismatic leading-man persona and delivers an unforgettably volatile performance.

Jake Gyllenhaal, who previously worked with Villeneuve on his feature ENEMY (the entire production and release of which would ultimately book-end PRISONERS’ own), portrays Detective Loki as Dover’s equally-haunted inverse: a coyote-like loner with ambiguous morals, his meticulously-manicured “hipster cop” aesthetic a visual signifier of his cool & controlled demeanor. Driven by a singular focus, he has seemingly shed himself of all extraneous matters— Villeneuve declines to show him with any family, significant others, or hobbies. We don’t even see where he lives. He’s essentially a justice robot, cloaked in an air of mystery as elusive as the one at the film’s story. That said, Gyllenhaal wisely contours the enigmas of his character with a specificity of physical detail: a greased-down undercut, oxford shirts buttoned to the top with air ties, neck tattoos, and a large gold ring bearing a Freemason symbol— all of which, brilliantly, invite further questions than provide answers.

PRISONERS’ supporting cast features a stacked deck of acclaimed character actors, each of whom carve out further layers of thematic meaning while complementing the ethical quandary at the heart of the story. Paul Dano and Melissa Leo evocatively embody what one could consider to the narrative’s antagonistic presence, but they too suffer from their own demons in a manner that complicates their moral standing. Dano plays Alex Jones, an emotionally stunted and troubled young man with the equivalent intelligence of a 10 year old. As the suspected child abductor, he reinforces our cultural expectation of the type of person who would do such a thing— he displays psychopathic tendencies like animal abuse and lives a reclusive life in his dirty RV, for example. Dano knows this, projecting a frail physicality and a genuinely unnerving creepiness to better lean into our expectations while laying the groundwork to subvert them as Dover’s increasingly-brutal interrogation techniques yield diminishing returns. Leo, completely unrecognizable under a frumpy wig, coke-bottle glasses, and a foam rubber posterior (1), plays Alex’s “aunt”, Holly Jones. Determined and deceptive, Holly is perhaps the least complicated character in the film; she’s come to peace with her darkness a long time ago, and has found a coldly efficient way to perpetuate it. Mario Bello does her best with the underwritten role of Grace Dover, Keller’s wife, throwing every ounce of her talent into a character completely overcome by grief. Viola Davis, by contrast, enjoys a bit more depth as family friend, Nancy Birch. She belongs to an economic strata more affluent than the Dovers, but finds that even the creature comforts of an upper middle class position can’t protect her family from the unspeakable evils of the world. Furthermore, she discovers her moral code reaches deeper into ambiguity than she might expect; when confronted with the shock of Dover’s desperate act, she is compelled not to right his wrong, but to simply allow it to happen, hoping it might deliver the results that the authorities so far have been unable to provide. In this context, Terrence Howard asserts himself as her counterweight. As Franklin Birch, Nancy’s husband and Dover’s best friend, he lacks the stomach for Dover’s methods— he’s a ballast of morality, conflicted nonetheless even as he points out the immorality of Dover’s abduction and subsequent torture of Alex.

PRISONERS begins Villeneuve’s string of collaborations with Roger Deakins, earning the celebrated British cinematographer one of his many Oscar nominations by ushering Villeneuve into the digital age. Whereas all his previous feature-length efforts had been shot on celluloid, here Villeneuve embraces the cold precision of digital for the first time. His assertive aesthetic loses nothing in the translation, infusing the 1.85:1 image with a foreboding power that stems from the impression of some kind of omniscient malice. The pristine digital image, sourced at 2.8k resolution on an Arri Alexa using Zeiss Master Prime lenses, reinforces this conceit in a way that the organic warmth of photochemical film cannot. The wide latitude and color space of Arri’s digital flagship allows Villeneuve and Deakins to create a high contrast look with vanta-black shadows, its palette ably balancing cold earth tones with the incandescent warmth of practical lighting sources. Compositions reinforce the central aura of suffocating mystery, oftentimes casting characters in silhouette or shooting through framing devices like windows occluded by fogged-up glass or rain streaks. The handheld, journalistic immediacy of INCENDIES stands down in favor of PRISONERS’ deliberate and formal camera movements— slow dolly pushes and purposeful aerials reinforce the aforementioned sense of omniscience, as if we’ve assumed the perspective of cruel fate itself. 

Another key collaborator in Villeneuve’s filmography emerges for the first time here, in the guise of the late composer Jóhann Jóhannsson. His original score is the perfect complement to Deakins’ monolithic pictorial approach, underlining the unspeakable malice that governs the lives of the film’s characters. He achieves this via a brooding, ominous suite of droning strings that carry the audience along on a current of dreadful inevitability.  Jóhannson’s music is like encountering a tiger or a panther in captivity— one can’t help but admire the beauty and elegance of its form, even though said form exists to make it a perfectly efficient killing machine. This dark beauty stems from Jóhannsson’s balance of the aforementioned surge of low droning with an understated celestial organ that escalates dramatically; it offers PRISONERS’ characters the possibility of upward ascendancy, or a divine deliverance from the misery of their station. Far from an overtly religious statement, this conceit offers only a small comfort— if not salvation, then a modest grace… just enough to get through the day.

Working with the ample resources afforded by a major American studio, Villeneuve enjoys a broader canvas upon which to paint the colors of his core thematic palette. PRISONERS feels of a piece with earlier works like INCENDIES in Villeneuve’s explorations of maternal fortitude. With its focus on the male characters of Dover and Keller, Guzikowski’s script yields little room for their female counterparts to fully assert themselves, but Villeneuve’s direction manages to extract as much as possible. He adopts a kind of “iceberg” approach to his realization of Grace Dover, Nancy Birch, and Holly Jones, using what little information he has to convey the multitude of characterization that lurks underneath the surface. In the case of Nancy and Holly in particular, Villeneuve highlights the lengths to which mothers (and in Holly’s case, “aunts”) will go to protect their children. We expect a mother to “do anything” for her child, but in the extreme case of abduction Villeneuve shows us what “anything” really means: with Nancy, it means looking the other way in the face of torture; with Holly, maternal desire to protect her “nephew” is twisted and perverted by the delusions required to perform evil acts.

Villeneuve’s singular ability to convey a towering, intimidating atmosphere finds a suitable conduit in PRISONERS’ Pennsylvania setting. By not naming the specific city or town in which the action takes place, he creates a kind of mythical impression of the Keystone State. We get a sense we may be somewhere in eastern Pennsylvania, although in truth we are actually somewhere in rural Georgia (have to love those production tax credits!)(3). The conscious decision to place the story in working-class, Rust Belt America adds an extra layer of socio-political resonance to the film— one that has only grown more salient as time passes. The last two presidential election cycles have placed an acute focus on Pennsylvania, designating it as the political battleground for a divisive culture war. A once-mighty bastion of American industry, the state has been struggling with the unintended economic fallout of globalization and green energy initiatives in a decades-long fight for survival. There’s a lot worth fighting for: its natural landscape is supremely beautiful, every acre thoroughly soaked in the stories of American nation-building. Villeneuve faces a formidable challenge in transforming such a setting into an intimidating, formidable one as per his creative prerogatives, ultimately achieving it by evoking his characters’ interior states. Placing the action in the days following Thanksgiving allows for a natural, autumnal gloominess — a tangible weight to the air — that underlines their desperation with an overwhelming sense of helplessness. 

In this context, the setting and the passage of time has added extra dimension to the film’s exploration of the morality of vigilantism and of Jackman’s character of Dover, in particular. When PRISONERS was released, the “prepper” lifestyle — an involving (some might say obsessive) hobby popular among rural American men that concerns the accumulation and storage of survival supplies like food and weapons in a basement or underground bunker, for use in the event of natural or manmade disaster — was a cultural curiosity; a harmless way for zombie apocalypse enthusiasts to live out their fantasies of defending the homestead from the brain-eating horde. However, sometime in the past decade, the sentiment has curdled; goaded on by conspiracy theories about “false flag” shooting events designed as a pretext for the eradication of Second Amendment rights (or cabals of political and entertainment industry elites secretly partaking in satanic, pedophilic sex rituals) that harmless desire to protect one’s family in an extreme scenario has evolved into a cancerous, accelerationist activism. Look no further than this January’s horrific riot at the Capitol, whereby these kinds of people effectively became the zombie horde themselves as they violently invaded the sacred halls of American power to assert their political will against the voting majority. We’re meant to sympathize with Dover’s plight in PRISONERS, and anyone with children of their own certainly does, but given his self-righteousness and willingness to reduce himself to brutality and dehumanization, it’s not a stretch of the imagination to think his face might have been amongst those storming the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. 

All of this is to say that Villeneuve generates a palpable sense of interior and exterior decay throughout the film— a depreciation of natural landscape, economic mobility, moral righteousness, even male virility (albeit in the guise of the impotence Dover first feels in being unable to protect his family and subsequently in the carrying out of torture that corrodes his soul while providing no useful information). The result is, despite the otherwise idyllic exurban environs, an oppressive and foreboding character that’s superimposed upon the setting— and a firm continuation of Villeneuve’s ability to transform the mundane into a psychospheric waking nightmare. Though this quality was nothing new to Canadian audiences and the international cinema community, it nonetheless positioned Villeneuve to the American megaplex set as a forceful and supernaturally-assured new voice. Perhaps his migration (some may say ascent) to the Hollywood studio system was inevitable, but few could have predicted that his voice would only grow more uncompromising in the process. Indeed, his grandiose vision only benefits from the lavish resources to be found behind studio gates, and the prestige of his international background seems to keep executive meddling to a minimum. 

This evident reverence comes not from PRISONERS’ success — a splashy Telluride premiere drove positive reviews and plenty of awards chatter but would only yield modest box office receipts — but rather from the undeniable promise of his talent. Look no further than the example of a beautifully-rendered race to the hospital at story’s climax, which displays a burgeoning mastery of kinetic action suffused with poignant characterization and an evocative atmosphere dripping with blood, rain and snow. A visually and emotionally stunning set piece, it suggests Villeneuve as a studio filmmaker akin to someone like Christopher Nolan: one who can deliver stimulating spectacle heavily suffused with thematic and extra-textual meaning. Indeed, it wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination, had Warner Brothers decided to continue the DARK KNIGHT series without its creator, they very well might have seen Villeneuve as the heir apparent. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Warner Brothers now counts him among Nolan, Clint Eastwood, and a select few others, as one of their premiere house filmmakers (the recent HBO Max debacle about moving the studio’s entire 2021 slate to streaming, however, may have made the feeling less mutual, what with the upcoming DUNE — arguably Villeneuve’s biggest film to date — now on the line). But all of that would lay in the future. An incredibly strong run of films had already begun: one that would make the already-successful first act of his career a mere prelude.

PRISONERS is currently available on high definition Blu Ray via Warner Brothers.

Credits:

Produced by: Andrew A. Kosove, Kira David, Adam Kolbrenner, and Broderick Johnson

Written by: Aaron Guzikowski

Director of Photography: Roger Deakins

Production Designer: Patrice Vermette

Edited by : Joel Cox, Gary Roach

Music by: Jóhan Jóhannsson

References:

  1. IMDB Trivia Page

2: http://mattscottvisuals.com/blog/2014/1/10/-what-are-you-looking-at-disecting-the-work-of-a-master

3. Via Wikipedia: Chitwood, Adam (2013-02-20). Production Begins on Denis Villeneuve’s Thriller PRISONERS, Starring Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. Collider, 20 February 2013. Retrieved from http://collider.com/production-begins-on-denis-villeneuves-thriller-prisoners-starring-hugh-jackman-and-jake-gyllenhaal/.

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