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Denis Villeneuve’s Dune wouldn’t have happened without this 2013 thriller

Few directorial careers have had such an impressive mainstream debut.

Jake Gyllenhaal approaching a crashed RV in 2013's Prisoners

It’s difficult to think about the current state of the film industry without bringing to mind Denis Villeneuve, who’s helmed some of the most acclaimed studio thrillers of the past decade. In 2021, he returned from a five-year break to release Dune: Part One, the first installment of his two-part adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic, which book readers long believed couldn’t be properly adapted for the big screen.

Villeneuve wouldn’t have had the chance to prove those Dune fans wrong were it not for Prisoners. The 2013 thriller starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and Paul Dano was Villeneuve’s first American film and, like so many of the movies he’s made since, it was a major critical and financial success. Had it flopped, it’s unlikely Villeneuve would have found himself behind the camera for major blockbusters like Dune and Blade Runner 2049.

Prisoners, now available on Netflix, remains just as effective and engaging as it was nearly a decade ago. Based on a screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski, it follows Keller Dover (Jackman), a hard-edged father whose protective and paranoid instincts go into overdrive following the mysterious kidnapping of his daughter and her friend. Convinced that a local man (Dano) was responsible, Keller captures him and secretly tortures him for information. In doing so, Keller puts himself at odds with Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), the detective charged with finding the children.

Prisoners is a fairly straightforward thriller, but by weaving Keller’s mental spiral with Loki’s increasingly twisty and disturbing investigation, the film manages to pack itself to the brim with tension and mystery. Villeneuve, meanwhile, brings the same level of impeccable technical craftsmanship to Prisoners that he has to all his other films, heightening the atmosphere, tension, and dramatic stakes with every patient shot and well-timed cut.

Villeneuve’s commitment to making the most of every moment, which helped elevate later films like Sicario above their familiar genre plots, is evident throughout Prisoners. Even scenes like Detective Loki’s unassuming introduction, which takes place at a Chinese restaurant on a rainy Thanksgiving night, seem to flow perfectly from one strikingly well-composed image to another. And from his first scene to his last, Gyllenhaal perfectly matches the film’s energy and tone.

Jake Gyllenhaal as Detective Loki.

Warner Bros. Pictures

The film’s rich color palette and visual style may come from Villeneuve’s own directorial sensibilities, but Roger Deakins’ Oscar-nominated work as the cinematographer does a lot to lift Prisoners above standard Hollywood thriller fare. Notably, this marked the first time Villeneuve and Deakins worked together; the pair went on to collaborate on both 2015’s Sicario and 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, the latter winning Deakins his first-ever Oscar.

Villeneuve’s ongoing partnerships with respected artists like Deakins speaks further to his own filmmaking professionalism. When it comes to engaging, mainstream studio films, there simply aren’t many directors capable of turning in the kind of stunningly well-made thrillers that Villeneuve does. From its cinematography to its nail-bitingly intense action sequences, Prisoners is a technical marvel that rarely falters.

Nine years later, it’s easy to see how Prisoners led Villeneuve to helm far bigger films. It remains every bit as entertaining and atmospheric as anything Villeneuve has made, and that’s saying a lot.

Prisoners is streaming on Netflix.

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