The Toronto International Film Festival – which ended this week – is a great barometer for what films might be upcoming Oscar contenders. The highest honor at this film festival is the People’s Choice Award, because it’s given to the movie that delighted not only critics, but also average people. While 12 Years a Slave won the award this year, third place went to the unsettling crime thriller, Prisoners. Even though the film opens in the US today, it’s already receiving high praise from audiences that have been taken on a journey through one of the most terrifying experiences a parent can face.
Prisoners follows two families, the Dovers and the Birches, after their two young daughters are kidnapped in their own neighborhood. The only information Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to go on is an old RV seen parked in the area around the time of the abductions. He suspects the vehicle’s creepy owner, Alex (Paul Dano), but doesn’t have enough evidence to keep him in custody. Which isn’t good enough for Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) who is convinced that Alex kidnapped the children and is keeping them alive somewhere, despite his only evidence being his gut instinct. Together, Loki, Dover and Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) must decide how positive they are about their suspect before destroying his life.
The serious subject matter of the film confronts moviegoers with distressing emotional questions. What would you do if it were your kids? How much can you harass a suspect without definitive evidence? What would you do if you were falsely accused of such a thing? All of these questions can be quite unsettling to the average person, which is something director Denis Villeneuve knows a lot about. The native Canadian is best known for his 2010 film Incendies, which deals with a sickening case of mistaken identity, and his other film premiering at the Toronto Film Festival, Enemy (also starring Gyllenhaal), is a Canadian-Spanish erotic thriller that raised some eyebrows. However, Villeneuve’s deathly serious and raw style is ideal for covering a topic such as this.
The other element needed to tell this kind of story is intensity, which is gloriously provided by a stellar cast. Whether as Wolverine or Jean Valjean, Hugh Jackman has proven he has incomparable emotional intensity, which he puts to good use in this film. Jake Gyllenhaal is great at playing sweet or a party guy, but his emotional range and stunning solemnity are terrific for his role as a hardened detective. And all Terrence Howard has to do is give that serious, slightly squinted look and you know he means business. All in all, you won’t be able to find a better combination of actors for a film of this gravity.
Prisoners is playing at a theater near you now, so check showtimes and buy tickets here.