When a film’s excellence is achieved as much by how it is told as by what it is telling, then that is the most exciting use of the medium, and its highest tribute. Such is the case with Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners.

Set in a working-class suburb of Boston, but actually shot in Georgia, the story follows the anguish of two families, the Dovers and the Birches, whose respective daughters are abducted on a sleepy Thanksgiving afternoon, and the investigation of the detective in charge, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. A mentally challenged local resident, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), is likely to have either been the culprit or the last one to have seen the girls. After Alex is released by the police for lack of evidence, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) kidnaps and tortures the boy with the reluctant help of Franklin Birch (Terrence Howard) in a desperate effort to make Alex talk. This is when the film gently lifts from the mundane, premium cable-style police drama — AMC’s The Killing comes to mind — and soars to award-worthy levels.

I’m not sure if there has been a crime thriller that is as serious an Oscar contender since The Silence of the Lambs. Finished only a week before the Telluride Festival, Prisoners has been the talk of the Internet ever since and is set to grab the box-office crown this weekend. It will be a crown well deserved.

The performances range from the solid to the struggling. It is a testament to Oscar-winner Melissa Leo (and the makeup department) that I had no idea she was in this until the credits. Gyllenhaal is likewise back where he should be; despite Jackman’s distracting, violent histrionics that may dupe some into believing he’s delivering excellence, this is firmly Gyllenhaal’s film. And he should learn his lesson, already, and desist from making detours into Hollywood summer dreck, for which he is neither physically nor temperamentally suited. And how well his particular physicality suits him here: those weary, doleful eyes alone constantly remind us of a man who cares so deeply he’s not getting any sleep.

Paul Dano Jake Gyllenhaal Prisoners

Battle of the large-headed thespians.

One of the first things you learn in film school is that if you want a film to be mournful, you set it in inclement weather. Let the skies literally do the crying for you. I can’t imagine Prisoners being set in sun-drenched Southern California; the dank, depressing weather combined with the indifferent homeliness of suburban America began to weigh on me about an hour into this film’s two hours and thirty-three minutes, drawing me into the families’ despair far more successfully than the acting or dialogue; French-Canadian director Villeneuve certainly understands the oppressiveness of impending winter and harnesses it to the narrative with mastery. As the story winds around you more tensely — I spent the entire second half grinding my molars — the weather gets worse, the locations become sodden with a somnolent bleakness, and it is that bleakness, as well as the moral ambiguity of torture, that is in itself audacious for a wide release from Warner Brothers. You expect this from an intense, intellectual European filmmaker like Jacques Audiard, but from this weekend’s likely number-one hit? Not a chance. Even The Silence of the Lambs needed more “scope” to help it through, as the studios love to call overblowing the production so that every sequence seems like a spin on an amusement-park ride. I am glad that this film is on track to recoup its relatively miniscule $20-million budget within the first few days of opening without the pyrotechnics. And, no, Hollywood, this isn’t an anomaly: filmmaking that relies on traditional techniques — acting, script, editing, music — rather than effects can and should win the day with audiences. It’s all about marketing and giving them the option to see these sorts of films in the first place.

I would be tempted to say the co-star of Prisoners is the original screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski — the plot is as clever as the best crime fiction in its subtlety and unpredictability — were the dialogue not so trite. I understand that these aren’t meant to be the most articulate characters that inhabit a nation chronically suspicious of intellectualism, and that the dialogue is perhaps meant to be as sparse and bleak as the rest of the production, but there are some color-by-numbers interchanges, particularly in the beginning, that could have been rethought. Still, whatever my stylistic reservations — and they are stylizations of the kind that hinder or bolster performances — the script is admirable storytelling, right down to the red herrings, which you only assume are red herrings but actually have some relevance to the plot; Edgar Allan Poe would surely doff his cap.

Paul Dano. Anyone who can sum up his character so eloquently through the draping of his hands, the slight jerks of gestures, has my personal nomination for Best Supporting Actor. And his mousy voice in the interrogation scenes that at once evokes pity and suspicion… that warped face like a theater mask… Dano is simply a natural in the same league as Meryl Streep and Philip Seymour Hoffman: You just know he has no idea how he does this, it’s just the right thing to do. Dano is probably the actor I’ve seen most around New York City, in the West Village specifically — walking on the streets, shopping, eating in restaurants — and unlike his peers (but like Streep) he is always alone, deep in thought. I’d have no problem going up to him and telling him what a fan I am of his work if his demeanor didn’t make me reverent for his need for personal space.

Jake Gyllenhaal Prisoners

In contradiction to Prisoners’ overlong running time — there are irritating lags in the second act that might have arisen from a combination of a rush to completion and a loss of objectivity in the editing room — Villeneuve has a gift for almost Zen-like economy in specific scenes that are an effective tool in teasing the tension into coiling around your nerves and squeezing. His direction of performance needs honing; Jackman is a showman, a theater person, supremely talented and focused and enthusiastic and dedicated, but Wolverine needs serious dialing back and repurposing if he’s to fit within the understated American-gothic context of a film like this. I also don’t think Jackman is well served by the equally flamboyant Howard as a sidekick. I’d go so far as to say the two are miscast, or there could have been better choices. But I’m also aware that Villeneuve and his producers were too fortunate to get someone of Jackman’s caliber on board, and at the end of the day they made it work.

Maria Bello and Viola Davis as the wives are just that: the wives. Bello in particular is her normal self, a shame because I’m convinced she has as great a range as Melissa Leo, it’s just her commonplace American blond beauty that hinders more interesting character roles from coming her way. The fact Grace Dover is benzo-ed out of her mind most of the film doesn’t make Bello’s performance a turn so much as it’s a sleepover.

I am so elated the awards season is off to a great start. I think this time last year Argo was the first out of the gate, and Prisoner is altogether a more satisfying experience than that, not least because it doesn’t rely on Argo’s dishonest, threadbare, swashbuckling Hollywood techniques and “scope” to give it wings.

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