It takes a great movie to fill a 150-minute running time, make an audience emotionally invest in characters who sometimes do terrible things and thrill the audience from beginning to end, but Prisoners does that and more. This is a fantastic thriller that does pretty much everything it needs to do exceptionally well — to not see it would be doing a disservice to yourself and the film industry. This is a film to get excited about.
Prisoners opens innocently enough but soon becomes any parent’s worst nightmare. Each year the Dover family and the Birch family get together to celebrate Thanksgiving. This year, the Birch family hosts the dinner. Each family consists of a mother (Maria Bello and Viola Davis), father (Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard), teenager (Dylan Minette and Zoe Borde) and six-year-old daughter (Erin Gerasimovich and Kyla Drew Simmons). Following dinner, the groups separate. Parents chat with parents, teenagers watch television and the daughters head back to the Dover house to look for a lost whistle. Later, the daughters are nowhere to be found. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads up the investigation. Cue dramatic music and the start of an intense and gripping thriller.
The film proceeds rather routinely for about 20 minutes, before it takes a slightly unexpected turn and continues to surprise you from there. This isn’t a formulaic or predictable crime thriller — it will keep you guessing from the moment the girls go missing to the point when the credits begin to roll. It does this without cheating, either, which resonates in a day and age where films deliberately mislead and hide information so they can “surprise” you with their reveals. This one permits you to solve its mysteries earlier than it wishes, although it’s smart enough that you’re unlikely to do so. And even when you think you have everything figured out, it throws another curveball into the mix. To sustain this amount of tension and suspense for more than 150 minutes is an extreme rarity, but Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners does exactly that.
The film also offers an emotional experience that you won’t soon forget. It has the ability to make you care for all of its characters even when you’re unsure of what they’ve done or you’ve seen them do morally reprehensible things. Because they’re all so strongly motivated and performed — Hugh Jackman gives his most intense performance, Jake Gyllenhaal plays a similar character to the one he had in Zodiac but has improved so much as an actor since then — that you really understand their mental state for the film’s entirety.
Prisoners is a film which will haunt you for days. It features many unforgettable scenes — many of which will make you feel uncomfortable, so be warned — strong, intense performances and a talent for drawing out suspense for a ridiculously long amount of time. This is one of the best movies of the year and you should make it a priority to see it.