This long but jangly, complex thriller will set pulses racing

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Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cert: 15A
Genre: Crime
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard
Running Time: 2 hrs 33 mins

Aaron Guzikowski’s script for this nerve-juddering mystery thriller sat for some time in the portfolio of best-unproduced scripts known as “The Black List”. You can see what attracted the compilers of that survey.

The writer spends a good hour scattering narrative threads – some almost microscopic – about the rainy landscape and then, in a lengthy series of nested endings, manages to tie up every last one. It’s quite an achievement. When, in the first few moments, a father mentions his plans for an abandoned apartment, you just know that the property will play a part in the story. What’s this brief aside about a lost whistle? You’ll understand it all in 120 minutes’ time.

Maybe the piece feels a little too overworked (the bit with the whistle smells strongly of "screenwriting"). But Prisoners still emerges as one of the most satisfying thrillers we have seen in quite some time.

We begin with two families celebrating Thanksgiving in a grey corner of Pennsylvania. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, a hard-working Christian man with a history of alcohol abuse. Terrence Howard is Franklin Birch, a more malleable, less volatile personality. The afternoon turns bleaker still when two girls – one from each family – fail to return from an afternoon walk.


We cut to a diner to find a tattooed man flirting uneasily with the waitress. Could this be the kidnapper? No. It is the mischievously named Detective Loki and – played by Jake Gyllenhaal as an existentially troubled Lt Columbo – he has soon done what any sensible cop would do and arrested the character played by Paul Dano.

Having seen Mr Dano before, you won't need to be told that Alex Jones is a creepy young man living uneasily with an overbearing mother (Melissa Leo with her foot pressed hard to the floor).

Unfortunately, the case against Alex immediately begins to crumble and Loki is forced to release him. Dover is having none of it. He picks up the suspect, takes him to that decaying apartment and chains him to a radiator. Driven close to lunacy with worry over his daughter, Dover reaches for his toolkit and attempts to beat information on the abduction out of Alex.

Some sly points are made about attitudes to torture in the age of terror. Dover's confliction is straightforward: he crosses a moral line and takes responsibility for his own actions. More interesting are the responses of Franklin and his wife. In yet another performance of near super-human depth, Viola Davis allows Nancy Birch to stand in for the compliant public as, not at all sure Alex is guilty, she acquiesces to Dover's plan, but avoids getting significant amounts of blood on her own hands.

Most of this happens in the first half hour of a long film that takes many, many diversions on its way to that fastidiously neat conclusion. Along the route, the tone does shift from taut procedural (in the vein of, say, Zodiac) to something a little more melodramatic (think of the breathless Mystic River). But Denis Villeneuve, the Canadian director of Incendies, maintains such a consistently sombre atmosphere that such jolts are barely noticeable.

Credit must also be put the way of cinematographer Roger Deakins, whose darkened images are so painterly that one easily forgives the frequent summoning of meteorological pathetic fallacies (that's to say, belting rain).

This is the sort of story that, alas, is rarely attempted on the big screen these days. In the wake of various Scandinavian sensations, producers now feel such sprawling mysteries belong on the telly. Villeneuve, Deakins, Guzikowski and the consistently excellent cast put the lie to that theory. It seems they do still make them like this.

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke

Donald Clarke, a contributor to The Irish Times, is Chief Film Correspondent and a regular columnist