My review of “Prisoners” at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival

On Saturday, September 7, 2013 I attended the highly-anticipated gala World Premiere of Prisoners at the Toronto International Film Festival. The sold-out screening was held in the elegant 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. It was featured in the Special Presentations section.

Neighbors Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) live in a modest middle class community of cookie cutter houses on winding tree-lined streets. One day their young daughters disappear. So begins Québécois director Denis Villeneuve’s slow burn mystery thriller. From a script by Aaron Guzikowsky, the 146-minute film doles out clues patiently. It’s a familiar story. On the face of it, we’ve seen it before and formulate the clichés in our heads even before they appear onscreen. But…surprise…they rarely materialize. The narrative takes the less traveled path, and even when it follows formula, the execution makes it worthwhile.

Prisoners is packed with truly magnificent performances. Impressive leads begin with Hugh Jackman as desperate dad Keller Dover, whose level of manic intensity never wanes. It feels a bit over-the-top at times but that’s what the character calls for. Likewise for Paul Dano, one of our indie darlings, as possible perp Alex Jones. His forte is the battered spirit, and he doesn’t disappoint here. He wowed me in recent hits Little Miss Sunshine, Fast Food Nation, Weapons, There Will Be Blood, Explicit Ills, Taking Woodstock, The Good Heart, The Extra Man, and Looper. Rarely does a year go by without a festival favorite of mine featuring Dano.

Dano's presence in the film festival world is surpassed by few, and at the top of the list is the frighteningly brilliant Melissa Leo. With 75 features in less than 30 years (including a number of my festival favorites, far too many to name), she is undoubtedly America’s most prolific actress. It’s not unusual to see her in three titles at the same festival. Her authentically heartfelt turn as Dano’s mother Holly is, as always, the quintessential everymother. But the most emotionally evenhanded performance is turned in by Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki, who remains rock steady versus the maniacal Jackman and Dano. Patient in the face of madness, restrained when others would explode, Gyllenhaal shines in a film packed with stellar performances.      

The powerful cast is rounded out by Terrence Howard as Franklin Birch and Viola Davis as his wife Nancy, along with Maria Bello as Jackman’s wife Grace (channeling Sharon Stone’s Alpha Dog mother) and Dylan Minnette (who burst onto my radar as bully Kenny in Let Me In) as son Ralph, who’s perhaps the sanest of the two families and works tirelessly to keep the Dovers grounded.   

Although produced independently, Prisoners boasts high production values typical of a Hollywood movie. The signature style of legendary, 10-times Oscar-nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins is evident throughout. Traditional dolly shots with slow push-ins are blended with fluid steadicam tracking shots, keeping the image constantly in motion. He often pans slowly around the action to increase the sense of movement during long dialogues. When he uses a stationary camera, it’s often highlighted by the frame-within-a-frame technique as actors are viewed voyeuristically through windows or doorways. The focus is always on the actors, as Prisoners is ultimately a character-driven narrative despite the intricate storyline.

Exteriors are dominated by a cool color palette of washed out blues and grays, as it always seems to be raining or snowing in this chilly wintry town (it was shot in and around Atlanta, Georgia). Despite the coldness just outside, warm interiors of amber and gold mask the tragedy surrounding the Dover and Birch households. The picture is a cinephile's visual delight even in its horrors.    

While Prisoners runs two and a half hours, it never seems overly long. There’s little downtime and few lags. Although filled with long takes, they are never self-indulgent and always serve the story. The movie is tension-filled at just the right pace to keep audiences engaged. Deliberate editing is key, owing itself to masters Joel Cox and Gary Roach. Between them, they have over 75 projects to their credit. Cox and Roach are the go-to editing team for director Clint Eastwood. The trio worked together on nearly 30 films, including The Outlaw Josey Wales, The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man, Sudden Impact, Pale Rider, Heartbreak Ridge, Bird, White Hunter Black Heart, The Rookie, Unforgiven (for which Cox won an Oscar), A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Absolute Power, True Crime, Space Cowboys, Blood Work, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, and J. Edgar. It’s no wonder Villeneuve tapped them for this intense crime thriller.    

Composer Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score is used sparsely, never overbearing, effectively punctuating pivotal points in the plot with dramatic swells. Matching sound effects help build tension, keeping the viewer engaged even as the lengthy picture moves past the two hour mark.

This is an edge-of-your-seat thriller in the tradition of Gone Baby Gone and No Country for Old Men. It’s also quite reminiscent of Changeling, one of the films edited by the same team of Cox and Roach, as well as one of my favorites from last year’s Toronto Film Festival, The Hunt. The fact that the picture's cinematographer and editors are the force behind dozens of award-winning films of the past several decades won't be lost on the Academy. Prisoners is the kind of movie Oscar loves. There's little doubt audiences will, too.


NOTE: I selected Prisoners for my Toronto International Film Festival Top Picks. It was chosen as the third most popular film of the festival, winning second runner-up for the TIFF People's Choice Award. Alcon Entertainment produced and Warner Brothers is handling North American distribution. Over a dozen other companies are handling worldwide theatrical, including Entertainment One in the UK and Roadshow in Australia. The film opened domestically in 3,260 theaters on September 20. It was #1 at the box office its opening weekend, taking in $20.8 million. 

PRISONERS Trailer | Festival 2013

Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman star in this gripping thriller from Denis Villeneuve (Incendies), which follows an…
  • Video Release: July 23, 2013
  • Length: 2.47 min
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Larry Richman

Larry Richman

For 20 years I was a professional in the entertainment industry, from commercial broadcast radio in America's fourth largest market to band management to record production. But my passion is independent film, and I spend much of the year traveling to film festivals to see indies and meet the actors, directors, and others responsible for creating them. I'm a writer, photographer, and videographer, currently serving as Senior Vice President for Media & Technology and Public Relations at PROnetworks as well as Editor at

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  • Author: Larry Richman
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