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Cult Column: Prisoners, Denis Villeneuve’s masterful modern thriller

ByLea Satala

Oct 29, 2020

The director of Dune has much more to offer in his back-catalogue.

The highly anticipated, star-studded Dune adaptation has meant its director, Denis Villeneuve, is suddenly in the spotlight, even before his creation is on our screens. Even though it has not yet been released, the film seems to already have secured spot in mainstream culture. Villeneuve’s art is finally getting the commercial attention it deserves. It gives me hope that his highly underrated masterpieces will get more recognition amongst all audiences. The decision to write about Prisoners in a column dedicated to forever iconic movies, like Scarface, may seem controversial (at least to the people who haven’t watched the film). Yet to me, Prisoners, is maybe the best thriller to ever grace the big screen.

The plot of the 2013 film starts with the abduction of two young girls during Thanksgiving celebrations. During a family walk beforehand an RV had been lurking in the area. This is taken to be the main clue by detective Loki, played phenomenally by Jake Gyllenhaal.

Even though the beginning may sound cliché, all our expectations and predictions (based on our knowledge of typical thriller plots) are never met. The almost refreshing feeling of frustration accompanies us till the very end. The audience is able to deeply identify with detective Loki on a profound emotional level, this can be rare in the thriller genre where the detective can stay shrouded in mystery long after they have solved the mystery of the plot. Even more emotive are the parents of the kidnapped girls. Their performances capture every shade of pain that they experience. Hugh Jackman’s incredible performance, as the father of one of the girls, is a perfect psychological exploration of complex, parental emotions.

However, the most striking feature of the film is its symbolism. Through seemingly unrelated threads, it is constantly reinforced. While watching we feel like there are many loose ends, past crimes seemingly leading to nothing or objects such as the maze paintings, that just don’t make sense. Yet the whole magic of the film lies in the incorporation of these loose ends into a mind-blowing conclusion. The symbol of the maze is incredibly important. Frequently used by Denis Villeneuve throughout his works, it represents the search, the psychological struggle, and the complex nature of the film’s characters.

These hidden symbols, along with its esoteric title, will leave you pondering the film long after you have finished it. It is this title, that once you understand, you are able to comprehend the film’s true genius. At first glance, it seems quite unrelated to the plot, yet the more you watch it, you realise the film is an analysis of internal and external prisons of the characters.

In my opinion, Villeneuve’s masterpiece has earned itself a spot among the best films of our generation. It is not an easy watch. It questions our morality, it blurs the boundary between what’s right and wrong. Yet the challenging complexity combined with beautiful cinematography is a treat for every movie lover. So if you want to know what abduction, mazes, prisons, frustration and complex morality have in common, Prisoners will give you the answer.

Image credits: GabboT via Wikimedia Commons