Prisoners

No major spoilers here

Having nothing better to do with Beth out of town, I decided to check out Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up to his 2010 Best Foreign Language Film-nominated Incendies (which I have not seen). Coincidentally, Prisoners opens on Thanksgiving Day with the families of Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terence Howard and Viloa Davis) celebrating together. The young daughters from each family, Joy and Anna go missing while walking back to the Dover home.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) heads up the investigation. He brings in Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a simple minded guy who lives with his Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo) and drives around in a creepy RV. Because Alex has “the mind of ten-year-old” Loki can’t get anything out of him and suspects that he wouldn’t have had the mental capacity to plan and carry out a kidnapping. Against Keller’s arguments, Loki is forced to release Alex. Keller, even more suspicious of Alex, contemplates doing some interrogating of his own…

Prisoners has a lot going for it. Apart from the director and the cast, it is shot by Roger Deakins, who I champion almost as much as Emmanuel Lubezki. Set in rural Pennsylvania, the world of the film feels real and lived-in. Everything works together to imbue the story with a suffocating sense of dread.

Unfortunately, despite this atmosphere, the film’s story suffers quite a bit. Maybe I was just paying too much attention, but I had the film’s biggest reveal figured out about 50 minutes in, meaning the remaining 103 minutes just dragged. Honestly, the film would probably be better if it was under two hours. The film plants not-always-so-subtle clues during Loki’s investigation, but then, at one point in particular, makes him too inept to make an important connection between one clue and another. I was shaking my head when he finally figured it out by chance, not by being a detective who, according to his boss, has solved every case he’s worked. I know that a thriller needs to give hints along the way so the audience doesn’t feel cheated by an out-of-the-blue twist. Prisoners makes some things a bit too obvious and the long path to an explanation makes the seams of Aaron Guzikowski’s screenplay show. You could tell me that the central mystery isn’t really the most important part of the film (a la Fincher’s Zodiac), but I don’t think that argument is supported by what’s on screen and how the film ultimately wraps up.

The film does explore some potentially fertile territory involving Keller’s certainty that Alex is to blame and the way he goes about trying to get justice. He engages in some morally questionable behavior in order to force a confession from Alex. I think this is the most interesting question the film asks, how far would you go if your child was kidnapped? However, I don’t think Prisoners is as interested in exploring the morality of Keller’s actions as it is in setting up the film’s climactic twists. We don’t really know how right or wrong Keller is until near the end of the film. Even more frustrating is at that point, the narrative sidelines Keller, and we spend none of the remaining screen time considering the consequences of his actions.

I have other, smaller quibbles too. There’s the fact that nobody other than Jackman and Gyllenhaal really have much to do. There’s the Dexter-style lack of competent police work. There’s the Keller is planning for the worst with a survival shelter in his basement that seems to go nowhere (other than one red herring scene). There’s an odd tangent with another person of interest in the case who’s connection to what happened becomes more confusing even as it is explained to us. It’s weird to say this, but even for a 2.5 hour movie, it seems like there are pieces missing. However, it feels like a lot of the missing pieces are unnecessary to the main plot. In keeping with the metaphor, it’s as if the film is building two separate jigsaw puzzles but there are only enough pieces to complete one and a half of the other. We’d be perfectly satisfied with the one complete puzzle, but the presence of that extra, unfinished, unclear puzzle muddies things up.

Even though the film looks great and at least raises some interesting questions, it is only somewhat satisfactory. At the cost of 153 minutes, I can’t recommend Prisoners.

[NOTE: Along with Prisoners, Villenueve premiered a second film at the Toronto International Film Festival this year. It’s called Enemy and it also stars Gyllenhaal, along with Melanie Laurent and Isabella Rossellini. It sounds pretty interesting.]

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