“Forgive Us Our Trespasses”: A Review of Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners

Prisoners is the English-language debut from Quebeçois auteur Denis Villeneuve, known for the Oscar nominated film Incendies (2010), as well as Polytechnique (2009), Maelström (2000), and Enemy (2013, which debuted at TIFF this year). Prisoners is an engrossing thriller situated in a small town in America gripped by recession and despair. The film is carefully crafted, full of religious fervor, superbly acted and well paced, with beautiful cinematography by Roger A. Deakins who paints scenes with taupes, crimson-indigos, forest-greens, and grey-blacks, brushed with a thick texture of rain that often blurs the lens.

The opening sequence sets the tone for the film’s moral battle between sin and virtue, as carpenter Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and his son Ralph (Dylan Minnette) say the Lord’s Prayer (a kind of mantra in the film) before Ralph shoots a deer for Thanksgiving dinner. Keller is a man prepared for anything—his basement is fully stocked with survival gear and canned food—that is, until his daughter is kidnapped.

After Keller’s daughter Anna and her closest friend Joy are kidnapped on Thanksgiving, the film gradually descends into a maze that will test the moral compass of Keller and those afflicted by the tragedy. Keller clashes most of the film with the young, confident, brash detective Loki (phenomenally acted by Jake Gyllenhaal) who is in charge of the investigation. Loki has solved every case he’s been assigned, and his own warring religiosity is visually emphasized by his various tattoos, including a faded cross on his hand, and a neck tattoo that looks vaguely like the Morning Star (Satan’s symbol), although it’s 8-pointed, meaning it could signify cosmic harmony.

The name Loki comes from Old Norse mythology and means “close,” and although Loki is considered a trickster or evil god, detective Loki’s consuming interest is to find the abducted children. It is Keller, wearing a large silver cross around his neck, who trespasses into sin as he captures, imprisons, and tortures Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whom, though Loki clears him of the crime, Keller believes to be responsible. The harder Keller presses Alex for a confession the closer Keller gets to losing his soul. Given the subject matter, Prisoners could easily fall into typical Hollywood kidnapping clichés, but doesn’t, and its labyrinthine structure is engulfing.

Prisoners either affirms faith or emphasizes God’s silence and is a testament to devotion or hope in life’s most desperate moments. Tragedy, for Villeneuve, is not merely a pallet for catharsis, but a place where healing might be possible. Given the incredible performances from the entire cast, there should be some Oscar nominations for acting, especially for Jackman’s standout performance. Given the subject matter, this is hardly a film for everyone, but it is a spellbinding English-language debut from Villeneuve.

Prisoners screened at TIFF and is set to be released in theatres on September 20, 2013.

Poster art by Warner Bros.