You've probably heard a lot about Denis Villeneuve's "Prisoners," which stole much of the spotlight at the Toronto Film Festival last week and was a runner-up for the fest's People's Choice Award. Luckily, it isn't one of those films that falls short of the hype; it is worth every bit of praise that's been thrown its way.
"Prisoners" stars Hugh Jackman as Keller Dover, a small town Pennsylvanian family man whose young daughter Anna goes missing on Thanksgiving with her friend, daughter of Viola Davis and Terrence Howard's Birch family. Jake Gyllenhaal, as the tattooed and tormented Detective Loki, is put on the case and tracks down Alex Jones (Paul Dano) as one of the suspects. But when the mentally underdeveloped Alex leads to a dead end, Keller takes it upon himself to get answers, pushing the boundaries of morality in his desperation to find Anna.
Before you see "Prisoners" this weekend and become overwhelmed with anxiety -- oh yeah, you will -- here are 10 things you should know about the film.
1. It's the Best Thriller in Years
Aside from "Black Swan," there hasn't been a solid, mind-bending thriller of late that has captivated audiences. But "Prisoners" screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski ("Contraband") has come up with a complex, riddled plot that will leave your mind whirling. This is another "Inception"-like shock that you'll definitely need to see a few more times.
2. You Will Bite Your Nails Off
From its opening shot to its last, "Prisoners" will spike your anxiety, leaving you chewing your nails and holding your breath. It's rare for a film to maintain such a high level of tension throughout without succumbing to grotesque violence à la "Saw" and "Se7en," or hallucinatory extremes, as in "Black Swan" or "Fight Club." "Prisoners" is just a damn good story with one of the most original, concise screenplays in years. It will certainly unsettle you more than any horror film.
3. It's Also a Realistic Drama
While "Prisoners" is a riveting thriller, the film features just as much heavy drama, with a story that can happen to any of us. Child disappearances occur every day, with many left as unsolved mysteries, and "Prisoners" successfully reveals the gripping terror and crazed extremes that can result. We get the perspectives of both sets of afflicted parents -- the unrelenting father who opts for violence as well as the more passive one (Howard) -- and the resolute detective, who is as emotionally involved, yet just as powerless. "Prisoners" beautifully blends the two genres better than most films before it; without the twist it could still function as an effective drama, but with it it never falls ill to implausible suspense.
4. Its Performances are Phenomenal
Sometimes having a cast with as many prominent actors as "Prisoners" does can be overkill. However, just enough screentime is allotted to each actor: Davis (always a scene-stealer) is seen so little in the film that her distraught character adds just enough support to Jackman's frantic Keller, Howard's reticent Franklin, and Maria Bello's melodramatic Grace. Melissa Leo is outstanding as always, aged as Holly Jones, the aunt to Paul Dano's Alex. But of course the acclaim goes all to Jackman and Gyllenhaal, both strikingly different but equally riveting in their respective rage and composure. Loki may be Gyllenhaal's most intriguing character in years.
5. Paul Dano is the Best Actor Who Hardly Speaks
Paul Dano proved himself a compelling actor to watch with 2006's "Little Miss Sunshine" as the sworn-to-silence Dwayne. As Alex Jones, an apparent creep of few words who drives an old RV, Dano once again turns a character with less than 10 lines into one of the most intriguing in the film. His bulging watery eyes hiding behind oversized glasses conceal so much mystery that a mere close-up on his face is at once terrifying, disturbing, and heartbreaking. Dano is definitely an actor that will continue to amaze with his reserved intensity.
6. It's 2.5 Hour Length Works Perfectly
With a running time of 153 minutes, a film can easily be susceptible to losing momentum or dragging on in unnecessary directions. However, every moment of "Prisoners" adds another layer of emotional complexity; with each scene we get deeper into the psyche of Keller as it shifts from fear to savagery. The script never feels desperate or reaching -- it takes us just deep enough to leave us reaching for more answers.
7. It Looks Impeccable
The mysterious and gloomy look of the film is primarily what makes it so riveting and unnerving. Acclaimed cinematographer Roger Deakins ("Skyfall," "No Country For Old Men," "The Shawshank Redemption") brings an eerie and sinister tone to each shot, making it difficult to ever look away or take in a full breath. Deakins's photography doesn't free you from the overwhelming suspense for a moment.
8. Villeneuve Is a Director You Need to Know
The Canadian director first garnered attention with 2000's "Maelstrom," but you may have heard of him when his drama "Incendies" was nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar in 2011. Villeneuve makes his English language debut with "Prisoners," a feat many talented foreign filmmakers fail to meet when they venture into Hollywood. However, the thriller echoes the similar theme of familial secrets from "Incendies" -- a must-see if you've yet to -- that will translate well to American audiences. Villeneuve is sure to be a director to keep on your radar; Fincher and Nolan better watch out.
9. It Will Make You Question Your Morals
It's easy to write off violence in a film when the situation is far from one you can realistically imagine yourself in. Yet Jackman's character, one that could be any of us, pushes the limits of right and wrong to the point where you're not sure who to sympathize with. Keller represents the goodness in us all that is easily corruptible with enough pain. How far is too far, and in the end, does our own suffering matter more than another's?
10. The Twist is Crazy...and You (Probably) Won't Guess It
You're probably trying to figure out what the hell this crazy twist is after all, but honestly, just stop. Maybe you'll guess it, maybe you'll be floored, but either way your thriller craving will still be fully satiated. This isn't a film where one word (i.e. "The Usual Suspects") gives away the twist or where knowing final reveal (i.e. "Oldboy") ruins the story; even after you know you'll still be left reeling and puzzled.