Let's skip the pleasantries. I want to talk about a single shot in Prisoners: the dolly movement towards the tree. Remember? It's in the first 15 minutes of the film. You must have been thinking, what's the point of this shot? Nothing happens, we're just moving in on a tree. But then the disconcerting score comes in. And the colour is graded to perfection. And a story slowly unfolds around it. And a simple transition shot becomes just as powerful, tense, and unforgettable as the rest of the film.
Frankly, a shot like this is only effective because, to Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, every detail matters. There is nothing superfluous or haphazard in his carefully curated universe. He's proven it in each of his feature films, from Un 32 aout sur terre, to Maelstrom, to Polytechnique, to Incendies. Now, in his Hollywood debut, he has taken a story that sounds like a formulaic movie-of-the-week drama - the search for two missing girls - and turned it into a first-rate emotional thriller.
With plenty of help, granted, from you and your boss, 10-time Oscar nominated cinematographer Roger Deakins (recent winner of The Roger Deakins Award for Excellence in Being Roger Deakins).
The cast also deserves credit. Hugh Jackman plays one of the missing girls' fathers, alongside Terrence Howard, and, in the course of the film, comes to feel rather strongly that the lead detective (Jake Gyllenhaal) is not doing his job. In most director's hands, Jackman's character would dominate the story and be shot in the frenetic shaky cam-style with which Paul Greengrass has almost ruined Hollywood pictures. But Villeneuve knows better. He understands how restraint builds energy. His reveals are slow and steady.
And the deeper we push into the story, the more it becomes a morality tale.There's a puzzle motif within the film, but the emotional through-line is very straight--and even more powerful than the mystery. The characters go off the rails, but the storytelling never falters.
Bruce, you've all made a picture that's as moving as, well, a dolly shot. It's smooth, beautiful, haunting and locked into its tracks - completely confident about where's it going. I enjoyed the ride so much (even at a run time of two and a half hours) that I was almost sad to see things finally resolve. But luckily, not at all unsatisfied.