Telluride: Denis Villeneuve's 'Prisoners' is a bow of tension drawn impossibly tight

Posted by · 7:47 pm · August 30th, 2013

TELLURIDE, Colo. – They simply don’t make thrillers like Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” at the studio level, and yet here it is. Glacially paced, bloated to a 158 minute running time, stingy with details as its mystery unfolds, it goes against most every convention for a film like this.

Upon introducing the film tonight after having just completed it a week ago today, Villeneuve (who paced with nervousness outside the Werner Herzog Theater prior to the screening) noted that he was terrified of transitioning to American cinema as a French Canadian filmmaker, worried he would lose his identity. He praised his producers for allowing him to maintain it, and indeed, “Prisoners” remains a vision all his own, identifiable, even.

I was no fan of “Incendies” on a story level but found the filmmaking to be formally refined. And “Prisoners” has every ounce of that class. It’s a patient film, almost painful in its suspense, and as mentioned, unafraid of pushing to an arguably unnecessary length. You could feel the length of “Incendies,” too, but the difference here is that drawing the bow so meticulously  tight adds to the atmosphere Villeneuve is building.

The narrative, in a nutshell, was set up nicely by a trailer many think gives away too much, but trust me when I say it doesn’t. It’s the story of a pair of kidnapped girls and the labyrinthine hunt for where they are, who took them and why. The answers ultimately aren’t all that satisfying, to be perfectly honest, but the build to them, the craft on display and a hugely brave final moment make it easy enough to look past narrative contrivances.

Of course, plenty of credit is owed to Villeneuve’s crew, cinematographer Roger Deakins in particular. There’s a reason most consider Deakins to be the best working DP and he makes another case here, collaborating with Villeneuve on a vision of at times startling richness, any number of frames bucking what one might expect out of a film such as this.

The ensemble is great across the board but Hugh Jackman gives what honestly might be his best performance as one of the desperate fathers willing to do whatever it takes to find his daughter. Jake Gyllenhaal is also perfectly utilized, carving out a law enforcement character caught between the robotics of the job and the emotion of the case. And also worth noting is Terrence Howard as the other father; he doesn’t get a whole lot to do here, but he makes it all count and, along with his work in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” seems to be back on the right track.

I don’t quite know if this shakes out as an awards movie, though, and it’s not like it has to. Jackman certainly deserves to be in the Best Actor conversation but it’s impossibly competitive. The film editing and cinematography both deserve consideration, too, but I can’t be sure. If it takes off (the Telluride crowd here was riveted), then there could be wiggle room.

But I keep coming back to the simple note that this is atypical. It’s not reinvention of the wheel, mind. It’s not something completely fresh. But it is expert, tasteful craft in the Hollywood sphere. We just don’t get it often enough. I think one day Villeneuve is going to give us an absolute diamond. I look forward to it, but in the meantime, this is an impressive leap onto the Hollywood stage.

“Prisoners” plays the Telluride Film Festival throughout the weekend before heading to Toronto next week. It hits theaters on Sept. 20.

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