Review: “Prisoners” (****)

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Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman star in “Prisoners”

If 2012 was a banner year for film production in Georgia, 2013 has been what dreams are made of. The Atlanta Film Festival showcased more Georgia indies than ever before, including some of the best I’ve ever seen—”Congratulations!” and “euphonia.” However, we mustn’t neglect the films that were shot here but conceived outside of the state’s boundaries. Hollywood studio productions that shoot here for the tax credits often use Georgia to double as locations that fit their story better, but the films still use plenty of local talent in terms of both cast and crew. Offering not only our talented actors and craftsmen, Georgia’s geographic diversity also speaks for itself—allowing easy access to pretty much any type of setting the filmmakers need. We’ve already seen plenty of Georgia-shot films released in cinemas and VOD this year, including “42,” “The Internship,” “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” “Killing Season,” “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” and “Savannah.” Several more releases are lined up for later this year, such as “ACOD,” “CBGB,” “Anchorman: The Legend Continues” and—the biggie—”The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” But if I were a betting man, I would count on Denis Villeneuve’s “Prisoners” to still be one of the best by the time all is said and done.

Villeneuve first gained notice in the late 1990s for his native French Canadian work, but his career took off in 2010 with his Academy Award nominated film, “Incendies” (which coincidentally screened at the 2011 Atlanta Film Festival). Villeneuve’s film contains a nearly tangible sense of his precise vision, echoed in the consistency and accountability between the striking visuals and stirring themes embedded deep in the screenplay. Making use of Georgia’s bleak ‘bridge ices before road’ winter, famed cinematographer Roger Deakins turns our coldest season into a murky Pennsylvania fall, setting an unwavering, incredibly icy tone from start to finish. “Prisoners” boasts a stellar, all-star cast, but Deakins’ photography is the indisputable standout.

Filmed mostly in Conyers this past January through March with additional shooting in Atlanta and Tucker, Georgia’s schizophrenic wintry mixes only encourage the film’s arresting visuals. One scene between Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal showcases the easy transition between freezing rain and snow, mirroring the tender balancing act of dealing with the families of missing children. Expert lighting and distinctive editing round out the film’s exceptional look. Nontraditional fade-outs used when many directors would continue with a scene perpetuate both suspense within the story and intrigue into the director’s choices. While a moody, thumping score would usually come part and parcel of films in the genre, Jóhann Jóhannson manages to keep it understated, further setting “Prisoners” apart from the pack.

While Gyllenhaal and Jackman jockey the lead back and forth, the rest of the ensemble exists in chunks throughout the large blanket of a film. Geographically, the film doesn’t cover much ground, but after the disappearance of the girls, more than one member of the supporting cast is rarely seen at a time, making the film seem more expansive than it is. Viola Davis, Melissa Leo, Maria Bello and Terrance Howard are as good as they should be—with Leo getting the most to chew on. Paul Dano and David Dastmalchian also deliver, perhaps benefiting from the fact that their looks lend themselves to more to peculiar, disturbed roles than those of their matinee idol costars.

Viola Davis, Jake Gyllenhaal and Terrence Howard in “Prisoners”

Loki is an appropriate name for Gyllenhaal’s troubled detective; mayhem brewing just beneath the surface of his forced composure. Gyllenhaal plays the film’s most interesting character, but we aren’t given much back-story or explanation for his faded tattoos and lingering eye-twitch—or even much in the way of evolution despite his propulsion of the story forward. Jackman’s character evolves—perhaps devolves is a better word—just as the villain purposed, but remains less interesting than his co-lead.

Unlike many mystery films, “Prisoners” follows a trail rather than dropping scattered clues and piecing together a puzzle. Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay serves the long film well, evenly distributing weight amidst the semi-slow pace.

While it currently seems likely that Deakins will receive a well-deserved 11th Oscar nomination for his work here (whew!), I doubt that “Prisoners” will make much of an impact on the awards circuit otherwise. While it has been and continues to be very successful at the box office, a semi-commercial film such as this would have to really rake in the receipts to go toe-to-toe with the more Academy-compatible films that will flood cinemas later this year. However, Oscar success or not, “Prisoners” is easily one of the best Georgia-filmed projects to have been released since our film boom began a few years back. A big league cast and outstanding techs highlight Denis Villeneuve’s captivating English-language debut.

4 out of 5 stars.

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