*note* For what few readers I have, I’ve fallen behind on blog posts due to work and other projects kind of getting in the way. I’ll try to be more consistent from here on out, but for now here’s one that fell to the wayside when things got busy. I think there still might be a showing at the Regal Westview, so be sure and check it out if you can.
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
WRITTEN BY: Aaron Guzikowski
STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano
What would you do if someone you loved was taken from you? What lengths would you go to ensure that, no matter what, that person would come home safe and unharmed? What if those lengths, even if you’re sure they’re right, force you to cross a moral event horizon you might never be able to come back from? That’s the question that lies at the center of Prisoners, a detective story that’s rooted heavily in real life fears and real life limitations. Definitely one of the more surprising films of this year, honestly, the only way I even heard about it before it came out was from seeing a poster hanging in the hallway of the movie theater one day.
The film opens innocuously enough. Two suburban families are getting together for a nice thanksgiving dinner. They both have young daughters around the same age, best friends actually. That just makes it all the more gut-wrenching when both families slowly realize that they haven’t come home after an unusually long time. Once it becomes clear that neither is coming home, the police department puts one of their best case, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal). His sterling reputation states that he’s solved every case he’s been assigned, but when strange connections tie this kidnapping to other kidnappings over the decades, things might get a bit more dark and twisted than anyone anticipated.
If this sounds like the beginning of a pulp detective story, you’d be right. Things however take a dark turn when the only lead turns out to be a cripplingly shy man with the intellect of a 10 year old (Paul Dano). Because the police can’t pin anything on him, they’re forced to let him loose after the requisite holding limit has been reached. Angered, and determined to find his daughter at any cost, one of the fathers (Hugh Jackman) takes matters into his own hands and decides to kidnap the suspect himself and torture the answers out of him. After all, everything points to him, right? To him, there is no doubt in his mind that, even though what he’s doing is “wrong”, it’s the only way to rescue his precious daughter and bring her home safe and sound.
The movie is anchored by its two incredibly strong lead performances. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Jake Gyllenhaal in anything that screamed “wow, this is actually pretty good” but, well, here it is. His Detective Loki is both someone you can sympathize with, but on another level be incredibly frustrated by. While a lesser movie might have made him a super intelligent man with Holmesian deductive skills, here he’s almost gut wrenchingly ordinary. While he is a very intelligent person, he’s also very flawed and limited largely by the same withholding of information we experience as the viewer. We feel his frustrations with the bureaucracy, the red tape and the dead ends. Even when he feels like he’s on the cusp of a great discovery, he has to hold himself back because of his own limitations and the limitations set by others. In any other detective story, he’d be finding clues left and right, following a trail of breadcrumbs to the obvious conclusion, leaving the audience to marvel at how keen observation and smarts can really save the day. Not here. Here he’s just human, almost as dependent on stupid coincidence as he is to his own intelligence.
This is in direct contrast with Hugh Jackman’s character, who’s blunt forceful attempts to reach the truth by any means necessary drive him over the edge into almost outright villainy. His story is a brutal, utterly depraved deconstruction of the “hyper-competent, super prepared dad who uses torture to fight the bad guys and save his family” school of character. Think that’s too specific? Just look at 24 and Taken where this machismo fantasy is played out as a positive trait if not outright heroic. What makes this so gut-wrenching is that the movie plays this against a backdrop that’s all too familiar to many people, and plays on fears that are very real so that you feel almost sympathetic to him at points. That’s what really bores into your head as the film drags on, that this could be real, and the lengths that Jackman’s character goes is almost sickeningly close to home. The fact that this is told parallel to Loki’s story adds that much more perspective to it. Both these characters approaches the situation differently than the other, and each is brought to the depths of absolute frustration by coming to dead ends even if it seems they did everything right. Without spoiling much, we’re left to wonder in the end whether one or the other was really right when the costs of their mistakes are added up.
On the technical side, this film is an incredible piece of visual work. I’ve written about my love for Roger Deakins a couple of times, and that still holds true here. It’s not even that the movie is outright “beautiful”, instead going for a very strong sense of naturalism that captures the mood and tone of the story perfectly. The visual scheme of this movie uses a lot of dreamy bluish tones, punctuated by moments of oranges that, while under any other circumstances would elicit a cry of lazy use of contrast from me, works due to it being largely built from natural light sources. Even simple moments like the candlelight vigil and the frantic search through the rain-soaked neighborhood succeed largely on how it makes you feel like it’s real and puts you right there front and center.
For all the schmoozing and praise I have for this movie, though, it does have a few glaring problems, namely in terms of pace and structure. At two and a half hours long, this movie is definitely more of a marathon than a sprint. While this runtime is used to good effect to give the audience a sense of the drawn out desperation the characters feel, it also has the tendency of making some moments feel a bit repetitive. The scenes of torture, while effective as far as characterization goes, don’t advance much beyond “We shouldn’t do this man” followed by “but think about our daughters”. There’s also this red herring subplot halfway through that diverts a lot of attention while having very little in terms of narrative payoff. That may be the point however, because the story goes out of its way to subvert the kind of unrealistic coincidences these kinds of movies have. It’s an effective effort to make it feel more real, but I feel that maybe it could have done with a trim to streamline the narrative a little bit.
In any case, despite whatever flaws it may have, Prisoners never failed to keep me interested, even through some of its slower moments. As a detective story it’s fairly unremarkable, reminding me of other, more tightly woven stories like Zodiac. As a character study though, it excels more than most movies this year have so far, and for what it’s worth will probably be up for a number of acting awards later this year. On my part I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the weak of heart (or stomach). It’s really one of those movies you’re grateful for seeing once, but afterwards never want to see again. Maybe that’s just down to how potent some of the gruesomeness is, or more likely I feel that since I already know the answer to the puzzle, it just won’t have the same impact the second time around. Either way, it’s definitely worth checking out before all the heavy hitters roll around, so give it a shot.