Prisoners – A Lesson in Creating Atmosphere

Still from Prisoners (2013) courtesy of Warner Bros.

With Dune on the horizon, I thought it appropriate to look at director Denis Villeneuve’s earlier genre work and how he and cinematographer Roger Deakins effectively create atmosphere in 2013’s Prisoners. When I refer to ‘atmosphere’ in relation to film, I’m specifically thinking about the overriding tone the filmmakers achieve, and the impact said tone has on the viewer and narrative. For those who have not seen Prisoners, it is a film drenched in atmosphere. Every drop of rain, blotting the frame, like spilt ink on paper, adding texture to the tragic events that Villeneuve and Deakins present to the viewer. 

But it’s not just the camerawork that helps create this; the two leading performances play a principal role in the atmosphere that is consequently achieved. Yes, Villeneuve’s camera lurks, creeps and steers in the eerie shadows that Deakins provides, and the film is lit in a way that oozes dread and mystery, but these factors are amplified by the committed, at times harrowing performances of Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal. What I find interesting is how Jackman and Gyllenhaal’s performances perfectly intersect like circles on a Venn diagram, with the canvas that Villeneuve and Deakins present. Both actors fully embody their characters, resulting in a sense of authenticity in their performance, which helps the viewer become emotionally invested in the narrative. Jackman’s macho patriarch, Keller Dover, rapidly unravels to a beaten down post of anger, frustration, sorrow and helplessness. All emotions that you could imagine a father feeling after his daughters kidnapping. It helps when you have a talented actor like Jackman, bringing said emotions to life of course. Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki (No, not the God of mischief), a man who seemingly has a murky past and consequently is consumed by the missing person’s case. Thankfully, the film does not provide the viewer with background exposition about said past, instead going full beam on the search for Keller’s daughter. The viewer knows Loki has his demons but by keeping these details hidden, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski only helps add to the film’s mysterious atmosphere.

Famed cinematographer Deakins is crucial to the atmosphere created, drenching the lens in shadows and placing the viewer in the eyes of the kidnapper, adding to the overriding aura of gloom. This is most potent when Villeneuve switches to a handheld camera, slowing, seductively and grotesquely lurking outside the Keller family home. The effect achieved at times is reminiscent of David Fincher’s earlier directorial work, specifically Se7en and The Game, with the prevailing taste it leaves in the viewer’s mouth. 

Prisoners is neither Villeneuve’s nor Deakins’ best work behind the camera, nonetheless it is a bold example of how to create the right atmosphere for the right story. With Blade Runner 2049, another collaboration between the two, lightning was captured in a bottle, once again, though this time to a much more uplifting colour palette of oranges, greens, pinks and purples.  

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