The following questions and answers are excerpted from a conversation that followed the NBR screening of Prisoners.
The different reactions of each character to a horrible situation seem remarkably realistic: No one knows quite what to do, but they all feel they have to do something.
Jackman: One thing I think Denis is really drawn to is the moral ambiguity – the gray areas – of characters and life. And I think that’s what really attracted us both to this material. The idea of playing someone who you may be watching and thinking, “yeah, I’d definitely do that,” and then as the movie goes on, you think, “well, I’m not so sure I’d do that…” So it plays with all our ideas of heroes and righteous violence. When people are scared and in the most fearful places, they do things and allow things to happen that they wouldn’t normally. And I think that’s what is so evocative about the film.
Gyllenhaal: I think there’s a great benevolence to Denis’ work. When you see a movie like Incendies and even Polytechnique, there’s a sense of forgiveness regarding actions that we would normally feel were unforgivable.
“I think there’s a great benevolence to Denis’ work.”
The scene between Keller and Loki in the parked car is incredible. Can you discuss your approach?
Villeneuve: I shot the scene with two cameras. For a director it’s pure, deep happiness to see those strong actors get off the rail and go in a chaotic direction that would create life and strength, and the result that you see in the film is the improvisation of those two guys. And I had nothing to do with that—it’s just them, as actors, having the generosity and the will to play with art in a way that, for a director, is pure poetry and beauty. And I thank you guys for that.
The theme of control permeates the entire film.
Gyllenhaal: When Denis and I discussed this film, we talked about how there’s a real play between institution and individual, and that Hugh’s character Keller represented the individual, while mine represented the institution. And the irony is that there’s a very cyclical way this movie works in that they both imprison themselves and one another at the same time by not working together. And there’s a balance and equality when they listen to each other. And that is, I think, the faint glimmer of hope that the institution and the individual exist together for a very particular reason. In a time today when we have so many intense responses to the institutions we’re involved in (the government, and so forth), that really do need to work in tandem. I think that was always the idea: the desperation for control from the institution and from the individual, and if they let go and balance each other out, they may be able to solve this case.
Jackman: Specifically for my character, who is a recovering alcoholic and a survivalist, there’s so much that’s obviously about trying to be in control. And in eight days of the film, you watch it all unravel. I always have a soft spot for characters like Keller, where you get the feeling it’s been hard for him to be the best version of himself—to be a good man. The title to me has always referred to us being prisoners of our innermost fears, and how we try every day to control those fears, really, whatever they are.