Reimagining the Revenge Thriller

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In his latest film Prisoners, screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski didn’t set out to reimagine the revenge thriller. He wanted to create a story about people in extraordinary circumstances.

“I didn’t have a formula. I was thinking about human stories and what those characters would really do,” he says.

Regardless of the intent, Guzikowski’s latest film, starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Maria Bello, takes the typical revenge thriller and turns it on its head. The film starts out routinely enough. Two families gather to celebrate Thanksgiving. After dinner, the unthinkable happens: Their two young daughters go missing.

What would typically follow is a cinematic game of cat and mouse. An antagonist would appear. The heroes would spend 90 minutes in pursuit, and the film would climax with a dramatic apprehension of the villain and a poignant rescue of the victims. But that’s where Prisoners is different. With an emphasis on self-reflection and ethical dilemmas, the story isn’t driven so much by plot as it is by the moral transformation of its characters, a process brought to life under the direction of Denis Villeneuve.

“I strongly believe in the power of silence,” Villeneuve says, a creative choice that allowed a deeply human story to unfold.

Contrary to the classic revenge thriller, the morality in Prisoners is anything but black and white. Though their motivations are noble, desperate actions taken by the protagonists illuminate just how blurred the line is between a hero and an antihero. When one of the fathers goes to extreme lengths to extract information from the prime suspect in the case, the audience is left wondering just whose side they should be on.

“It’s about the way that crimes affect the people who aren’t the actual victims, the people who are left behind,” says Guzikowski. “It just seemed like a believable motivation to me. Usually characters like this don’t necessarily have a real modus operandi and this one does.”

But the deviation from classic revenge thrillers doesn’t end there. Viewers looking for a tidy ending will be left wanting. The ambiguity that colors the characters’ morality bleeds into the film’s structure by way of an open-ended finale. The result is equally as chilling as some of the films most intense moments.

“I love the ending. I deeply, deeply love the ending. It’s got so much courage,“ says actor Gyllenhaal. “It’s wonderful to watch an audience as the seconds tick by, knowing the ending is coming. They have no idea what they’re about to experience in that last cut. And I love that. I think that’s why we make movies.”

The Lincoln Motor Company screened Prisoners with Variety on Saturday, November 16, at the ArcLight Cinemas in Los Angeles.


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