October 30, 2013

Film review. An analysis of the cinematography of Prisoners, by Denis Villeneuve

Prisoners is the last work by Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve (Incendies, Polytechinque, Maelström), a suspenseful as well as disturbing thriller with a great script.

The Plot. On thanksgiving day, two six year old girls disappear. Despite the police investigation, which seems to lead nowhere, the father of one of the girls decides to take matters into his own hands, using desperate and unorthodox methods.

Cinematography: Roger Deakins
Camera: Arri Alexa Plus and Studio
Lenses:  Zeiss Master Prime
Aspect ratio: 1.85:1
Film Stock: -

Prisoners is the first collaboration between director D. Villeneuve and one of the finest living cinematographers, Roger Deakins (Skyfall, No Country for Old Men, A Beautiful Mind, The Hurricane...) and the result is outstanding.

Once again, the British cinematographer chooses the Arri Alexa and Master Prime Zeiss lenses to shoot Prisoners: this choice is not only dictated by Deakin's preferences and own style, but also for the way of shooting the film and the results he was expecting. The resolution, the latitude and the details offered by camera and lenses were necessary to shoot often in very low light conditions without jeopardizing the image quality and neatness.

Light has a natural feel throughout the film. Most of the time characters are lit with a single light placed outside windows when it imitates the daylight or on one side in the indoor shots imitating on set lights. Sometimes the only lights used on scene are headlamps, flash-lights, neons or candles, and it's in these scenes where we can see Deakins' great work: contrast is high, light is low and shadows are really deep and yet the image is clean and beautiful.

Prisoners is a dark film and Deakins shows it by the way of lighting. There's no sign of the sun throughout the film: all the exteriors are shot on dull days, sometimes in rainy or even snowy ones. That results in an overall grey tone with desaturated colours, an aesthetic that goes very well with the story. In the indoor shots, characters are almost always backlit or side lit, creating silhouettes and  a strong contrast. By this way of lighting, characters are often shadows that move in the scene: this suits perfectly the characters who have somehow something to hide.

As a good thriller as it is, Prisoners releases pieces to complete the puzzle one by one; to enhance this concept Deakins offers us some of the most artistic images of the film. The frame is like a black canvas where the British master draws few brush-stroke of light, lighting half a face of a character or some details of the scene. The shadows gain great importance for the story: they are what is not seen or known, the secrets and the unconscious, they are where the truth lays.

Camera movements are dosed and imperceptible helping the audience to stay in the story, a purpose also achieved by the focal lengths used, never too wide  nor too telephoto, always staying within the normal range of the 50mm, avoiding perspective distortions and offering a more natural look.

Prisoners is a very well made film brilliantly directed by D. Villeneuve who managed to build tension since the first frame. With his stunning work R. Deakins teaches us that cinematography isn't necessarily about where placing the camera to get the best possible angle, but it's about enhancing the story and finding the way to make a moment or an emotion more beautiful, more intense, more powerful. 


  1. sorry for so many words...

    while i like the overall story i cannot agree to all praise you give this movie.
    i am no trying to rant about it - i liked it! but there are some learnings from this film for me:
    you may not adhere to hollywood looks and pacing, but you cannot break with dramatic principles without degrading the story!

    first off the positive: the story is good and has a natural feel. despite its length, the movie never drags or feels tiresome.
    that is, if you accept the non-hollywood approach to movie-making this picture throws at you right in the first pictures.
    now, this movie proves, that you don't have to follow hollywood laws to make a good movie, but prisoners does find the border at which the viewers pleasure degrades when going away too far from usual production rules.
    and they were not afraid of taking this too far stretched step - unfortunately.

    prisoners shows an incerdible use of available light and if there is additional light, it is well hidden in the composition.
    nevertheless, there seems to be only one lens in use - a regular 50mm at stop f22. the image is crisp, cutting crisp, from foreground to background.
    there is hardly any directing to the eye and the whole movie suffers under the impression of a high resolution broadcast camera.
    so, there could have been more dramatic composition in the picture, definitely. some wide shots, some close ups.
    we do not get forced into the story, we do not get pulled back from wrong imaginations. this adds to the broadcast like image negatively.
    apart from the unclear shifts from leave-it-natural-grading to teal-and-orange and back - this is not my main point of critique.
    for the usual movie-goer this is bearable and possible to get away with.

    what realy makes me sad is the number of characters in the movie, that offer strong dramatic potential, but don't get to realse it.
    two hope driven mothers, two angry to desperate fathers, an overtime working yet appreciation-less cop and a miraculously quite young man, that gets a lot of attention.
    however, the story telling jumps from one character to the other without engaging in their inner most emotions. we do not fully anticipate the character arc of any one of them.
    the mothers deep depression gets tranquilized with pills - why? we catch a glimpse at a fathers desperate anger that however does not fully get released, but gets finally hidden behind wooden boards.
    characters with lots of dramatic potential that do not get to share their full story with the audience. thats a pity. people come and go.
    at last, there is that cop, trying hard and remaining fully committed to finding the girls. yet the character lacks personal flaws and conflicts and screen time to make him the main character.

    i could imagine the movie being told from the perspective of any one of them and that would have done better than throwing all their perspectives into on big pot and stirring them.
    i was neither compassionate, frightened or excitet throughout the whole play time.

    i have to admit that the overall tension remains constant and well bearable, not easy for 150 minutes. but it was actually too constant. some modulation and harder climaxing would have done some good to this story.
    plus, i would have liked to see an achor visual for the movie, which fails to develop. the red whistle could have done the job.


  2. That is, if you accept the non-hollywood approach to movie-making this picture throws at you right in the first pictures. arri alexa