Hyperbole at film festivals is to be expected, BUT even with direct competition from Brad Pitt and the Coen brothers, the reaction to the first public screening Friday night anywhere of director Denis Villenueve’s thrilling and penetrating drama Prisoners at the 40th Telluride Film Festival was completely unexpected and significant. This was a “surprise” screening (although I predicted it) and filled the 650-seat Herzog Theatre. For weeks some I spoke to thought on the basis of the trailer and more mainstream elements of the film that it was probably an unworthy commercial film that somehow snuck into the more tony environ of Telluride. Uh, no. This is a first-class motion picture experience unlike any other that I, for one, have experienced in a long time. But it’s not an easy sell.

The applause was strong and early critical praise is over the moon. Pundits will have to add this Alcon production being released by Warner Bros on September 20 to the list of strong Oscar contenders. That is, if  audiences and Academy members can handle the intensity of this superbly directed and produced film that features career-best performances, for sure, from Jake Gyllenhaal and Hugh Jackman (OK, I liked Les Miz too a lot), plus a brilliant supporting cast including Melissa Leo going for another supporting win; Terence Howard; the great Viola Davis; Maria Bello; and Paul Dano, who goes through the ringer for his art. You can easily compare this gem to critically acclaimed pictures like Zodiac, Seven, Mystic River and any number of films in the genre. Director Villeneuve doesn’t shy away from the comparisons. He says he is a great admirer of David Fincher and Clint Eastwood. In fact one of his editors, Joel Cox, is an Eastwood regular. Look, it’s not an easy sit, but as Telluride’s Julie Huntsinger had planned to say in opening remarks before she was called away, “I’m sorry, and you’re welcome”. This was sweet music to the ears of Villeneuve, who was here in Telluride with edgy indie films twice before including his Foreign Language Oscar-nominated Incendies. But this was different, as he explained when we met at lunch at the Sheridan Opera House a few hours before the film’s debut screening. I had the advantage of seeing the finished digital print even before Warners and Alcon execs as it was delivered just hours before I saw the film on the WB lot alone Monday morning. Originally I was scheduled to see a rough cut of the film racing against time to be ready for Telluride and Toronto, but I got lucky. I am glad I was by myself as I kept yelling things at the screen, such is the experience of this 2 1/2-hour emotionally draining ride. It’s a total cliché, but I was on the edge of my seat through the whole thing.

“Cinema is alive when people see it, otherwise it is just an object, ” Villeneuve said just hours before the several debut screenings of the film this weekend. “What I love about Telluride is that it is a real audience, and I am looking forward to get the reaction. I am aware that my movie is not a comedy, not a musical. It’s a dark piece.” Villeneuve doing his first big studio film said he was aware of all the horror stories about the transition but was pleasantly surprised. He said he and cinematographer Roger Deakins were given carte blanche by Alcon. It was the perfect experience for them, and as someone commented Friday night, Deakins doesn’t like any of his directors. Whether that’s true or not, he certainly liked Villeneuve and vice versa for the director who just heaped praise on his DP who is Oscar-less despite 10 nominations — but not for long.

The film is ostensibly about the Thanksgiving Day kidnapping of two girls from two families spending the holiday together. But as the director explains, Aaron Guzikowski’s much-admired Black List script is not about a kidnapping “It’s an exploration of how violence is spreading inside a family. How it destroys the tissue inside a family. What I was really impressed with in the screenplay is the way we see the different impact of the tension and violence on the various characters. I thought the main theme of someone struggling with distrust of his own institutions and individual freedom, this kind of tension I thought was very well expressed and inspiring,” he said adding that it is a sadly contemporary subject.

I don’t think there’s a single laugh in the film, no relief. You are simply wrung out by the end. The title is appropriate. All the characters are prisoners in their own right. This is a major achievement, one I can see landing several significant Oscar nominations. The journey is just beginning for the Prisoners. Villeneuve gives much credit to the casting and his key stars. “If you cast someone like Jake Gyllenhaal, you know he will invade the part totally and create something,” he said. “My background is documentary. I am used to listening to life. The more I am doing fiction movies, the more I love actors and want to give them freedom. There is nothing more exciting than to let chaos happen in front of the camera.”  Villeneuve  added that he also was more impressed every day with Jackman as well as Gyllenhaal. He said Jackman is an actor without ego.

At the film’s Telluride afterparty Friday night, Villeneuve also talked about Enemy, the intimate drama he made before Prisoners with Gyllenhaal in the lead. Like Prisoners, it will be playing next week in Toronto. Unlike Prisoners, it is looking for a domestic distributor. Also at the party Alcon’s Andrew Kosove, his wife and fellow producers Kira Davis, Broderick Johnson and Adam Kolbrenner were truly euphoric about the initial Telluride and critical reaction to the movie. Villeneuve was glued to his iPhone awaiting new reviews. Such is the life of a filmmaker with a movie just about ready to go out in the world.

Johnson talked about the excitement he and Alcon felt over their Best Picture Oscar nomination and Best Actress win for Sandra Bullock in The Blind Side but said this reaction was an equal high. Kosove said it was exactly the film they wanted to make when they read the script and added some major actors (Ben Affleck among them, I hear) passed because it was just too dark a place to visit. It’s early in the awards season, but the emotional level of this film could put them all back in the race.

As for returning for the third time to Telluride, Villeneuve said this is the sweetest. “Honestly, it is my favorite film festival on Earth, but it is tough to come here. The prize is to come here. It is just about love of cinema — there’s no glamour, no flashes. The intimacy of cinema I love. Three years ago I was super honored to come here with Incendies, but when you come here with an indie movie, it’s like a big support to the movie. But I am more moved to come back here with Prisoners because it is a big studio movie. Coming here is like a big pat on the back saying, ‘You did an auteur movie.’ Because here it’s not about commercial movies, it’s about auteurs. So to be here is the biggest compliment I can receive,” he said.