Seeking out the

5000 greatest films

in a century of cinema


Directed by Denis Villeneuve
Produced by Broderick Johnson, Andrew A. Kosove, Kira Davis, and Adam Kolbrenner
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
With: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons, Wayne Duvall, and Len Cariou
Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Editing: Joel Cox and Gary Roach
Music: Jóhann Jóhannsson
Runtime: 153 min
Release Date: 20 September 2013
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1

One of the great pleasures of seeing movies without knowing anything about them beforehand is that, although you'll suffer through a great many stinkers, every once in a while a film comes out of nowhere and reminds you why you love the movies in the first place. Prisoners, an exquisitely constructed Hollywood thriller with an impeccable cast, is captivating for the entirety of its nearly two and a half hour running time, and though less compelling than the best contemporary dark detective mysteries like The Silence of the Lambs or Zodiac, it certainly belongs in their company.  Writer Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay harkens back to a time when Hollywood thrillers didn’t need to trot out a chase or a climax every twelve minutes, and the suspenseful script reminds us of the pleasures of the slow burn. The top-notch production team of director Denis Villeneuve (Oscar-nominated for the 2010 French Canadian mystery Incendies), cinematographer Roger Deakens (arguably the greatest DP currently working), and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach (who cut the last dozen of Clint Eastwood's movies) treat the script with all the care and patience it deserves, and the deliberate pacing allows the audience to absorb all the rich detail of this mystery/procedural. Of course, this movie is a Hollywood thriller and there are plenty of narrative contrivances that wouldn't withstand close scrutiny, but the film is so carefully written and directed that the plot holes and logical inconsistencies that normally derail this type of picture are nowhere in sight. 

Prisoners is the kind of movie that fuels American paranoia about dangers that don't actually pose a significant threat to us, and it's simultaneously an examination of what happens when people act on those fears. While the film isn't subtle about the moral questions it raises, it avoids pontificating or providing easy answers to the questions the characters face. Feature-length thrillers with complex moral ambiguities have been pretty scarce since the late 1970s, and most sophisticated genre material now appears mainly in the longer story arcs of episodic cable television. While cable shows can be great on their own terms, the open-ended nature of the TV medium lacks the focused immediacy of feature films - so when a popcorn picture this intelligent and absorbing comes along, I feel like popping champagne more than corn. At a minimum, Prisoners offers the chance to see some of Hollywood's best working actors in an immensely satisfying genre picture, but the film also represents a return to form for the type of emotionally and intellectually stimulating entertainment that big-budget, star-driven, mainstream movies used to deliver in abundance.