Denis Villeneuve Saved Jake Gyllenhaal From An 'Impossible' Prisoners Scene

On the surface, "Prisoners" — director Denis Villeneuve's 2013 English-language debut – is a revenge tale gone wrong, about a devout survivalist, Kelly Dover (Hugh Jackman), who finds out that his daughter Anna (Erin Gerasimovich), has been kidnapped. However, much like the film's central metaphor, "Prisoners" is a labyrinth, wherein the characters are trapped in their own mental prisons made of internal tussles and moral quandaries.

A central character responsible for solving the labyrinthine mystery in "Prisoners" is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who is first introduced in a noir-ish shot of him sitting inside a diner, as heavy rain lashes against the windows. In a brilliant demonstration of "show, don't tell," Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins reveal aspects of Loki's character and motivations with the aid of visual metaphors and evocative shots. This technique is used throughout the film to allude to certain events. For instance, a close-up shot of a tree acts as a prelude to disaster moments before Anna is kidnapped, capturing the somber mood of the events that are about to play out.

Although most of the film's key moments were carefully planned out and relatively easy to set up, Gyllenhaal found the setup of the story's climactic scene "impossible" to act out. In 2020, Gyllenhaal revealed in the "Team Deakins" podcast that it was a struggle for him to enact the scene as was expected of him, and how Villeneuve and Deakins had swooped in to make things easier.

The power of perspective

The climatic scene Gyllenhaal is referring to above is the one in which (spoilers!) Detective Loki visits the house of Holly (Melissa Leo) and stumbles upon evidence that proves that she is the child kidnapper. Loki walks into a room and finds Holly drugging Anna, which leads to a tense shootout between him and the perpetrator. After managing to shoot the killer, a severely wounded Loki rushes the drugged child to the hospital. The sheer amount of pressure that Gyllenhaal's character undergoes within this taut, chilling scene cannot be overstated, and the actor said that he was not sure how he could pull it off:

"The way it was written, it was impossible for me to act. It made it almost impossible for me to pull off. I would have had too much egg on my face as a performer to try and pull that off...It's this dramatic thing where I have to keep her [the killer] at bay with my performance, save the kid, and I also just got shot in the head. It was too many elements as a performer to hold."

Thankfully, Villeneuve and Deakins had already figured out how they would shoot the scene in a compelling manner. In order to balance an already tense scene, they decided to focus the camera on Anna throughout the sequence, as her fate is integral to the outcome of the shootout. Loki and Holly are seen in the periphery, and while the details of what goes down are crystal clear, it is the power of perspective that makes all the elements work. Gyllenhaal went on to applaud the director and cinematographer's vision, saying that the pivotal scene in "Prisoners" is "how you see something and how a story is seen."