2013 Academy Awards, 86th, 8MM, Alex Jones, Best Cinematography nominee, cinema, dark films, Denis Villeneuve, Detective Loki, drama, film reviews, films, Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, kidnapped, Maria Bello, Melissa Leo, missing child, Movies, Nicholas Cage, Oscar nominee, Oscars, Paul Dano, Prisoners, race against time, rainy films, Roger Deakins, Seven, snubbed at the Oscars, Taxi Driver, Terrence Howard, The Hunt, torture, Viola Davis
Movies have a marvelous way of presenting the most wretched, bleak situations possible in a truly hopeful light. Through the power of film, no obstacle is too great to overcome, no adversity too dire to best. Genocide, slavery, Holocaust, world hunger, extinction, climate change, death: all it takes is the right person (or group of persons) to change even the most stubborn of societal ill. On the flip side, however, films also have a particular way of sucking all of the air from a room and showing us how terrible insignificant we really are. The right film, at the right angle, for the right person, can be the most bleak situation imaginable. Think back to the rain-drenched, under-lit atrocities of Seven and 8MM…the relentless march to oblivion that is Taxi Driver or Old Boy…the parental anguish of Hardcore…some films exist not so much to make us feel better about the world but to remind us of how terrible it really is. Some films, like Martyrs, are not so much entertainment as painful open wounds, viscera thrown straight into our brains. And some films, like Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, exist to remind us that the first place we should always look for evil is in ourselves.
Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman)’s young daughter and her friend have gone missing and the police have a suspect in custody: Alex Jones (Paul Dano). Alex seems to be a truly weird, creepy guy and the beat-up RV he tools around in does seem fairly suspicious, but suspicions aren’t quite good enough for the legal system. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal, chewing up scenery and spitting out shrapnel) is forced to cut Alex loose, which just doesn’t sit well with survivalist papa Keller. With the unsteady assistance of Franklin (Terrence Howard), the father of the other missing girl, Keller kidnaps and tortures Alex, trying desperately to find the missing girls. As the case becomes more complicated and Loki continues to dig up new leads, such as Alex’s strange aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), a mysterious body in a cellar and a homicidal priest, it becomes less and less certain that Alex is actually guilty. As the clock ticks down, Keller is faced with the agonizing possibility that the bloody, terrified man before him might actually be innocent…and that the real villain might still be out there.
On its face, Prisoners has quite a bit going for it and seems to compare well to similar fare such as Seven. The film is beautifully shot, featuring some truly gorgeous camera-work by legendary DP Roger Deakins, which also earned the film its sole Oscar nomination (Best Cinematography). The score is moody and oppressive, which aids ably in smothering the film in the same sort of atmosphere that cloaked films like Seven and 8MM and the script, while not completely original, nonetheless provides enough twists and turns to keep things interesting. Towards the end, the twists begin to spring up so fast that the film threatens to spring a leak, however, and there’s at least one moment that still has me profoundly confused. Nonetheless, the film looks and sounds great.
Unfortunately, there are two critical issues that threaten to pitch the whole affair upside-down: the over-the-top acting and the film’s general bloat. Although there are some nicely understated roles in the film (Dano is excellent as Alex and Viola Davis is very good as Franklin’s wife, Nancy) and one particularly juicy broader one (Melissa Leo is simply marvelous as Alex’s aunt and was criminally overlooked in the Best Supporting Actress category), the majority of the actors are almost ridiculously over-the-top, playing so broad as if to be shouting to the rafters. Gyllenhaal, in particular, is mercilessly teeth-gnashing, playing Loki (so named because Max Powers was too silly?) as the kind of sneering, desk-pounding, perp-bashing super-cop that was a cliché by the ’70s. He’s a good actor attempting to mimic Nicholas Cage at his most out-of-control and the effect is head-scratching: what was the point? Rather than coming off as a badass, Detective Loki is sort of like a whiny, highly ineffectual but endlessly bragging Harry Callahan. He receives perfect support from Jackman, however, who seems to greet any trial or adversity by howling in pain and punching it. Between the two of them and Howard’s skittish, constantly shouting Franklin, the film often feels like we’ve walked into the middle of a particularly nasty argument between complete strangers. Maria Bello is criminally wasted as Grace, Keller’s wife, suffering from the lethal combo of being as broad as the other actors but with less screen-time to smooth it out.
The fact that any character receives too little screen time is a bit of a minor miracle, however, since Prisoners worst flaw, by far, is its rather unbelievable 2.5 hour run-time. Since the film tells such a simple, contained story and never expands much past the immediate surroundings, it seems rather criminal for things to stretch past the 90 minutes mark, much less the two-hour mark. The film ends up being relentless but not in a good way: we end up getting bludgeoned into submission by one extended torture scene after another followed by one Loki tsunami after another followed by one Keller freak-out and so on and on. The Hunt managed to explore the horror and pain of small-town suspicion gone amok in a much more succinct fashion, while Saw and Wolf Creek managed to do likewise with the torture genre. Prisoners manages to mash both together yet, rather than co-mix them, seems content to merely stitch them side by side. The investigation portion of the film, alone, would make a full film, as would the largely gratuitous torture scenes. Together, it’s all too much. I found myself fatigued and wanting to tap out way before the extended 40-minute or so finale introduced another handful of twists.
It’s a shame that Prisoners hobbles itself in some pretty fundamental ways because it has so much going for it. Deakins, the master behind the lens of films like Fargo and The Big Lebowski, does some fantastic work here, presenting certain shots that are pretty enough to frame. There’s an easy fluidity to everything that makes the film effortlessly watchable, even during the torture sequences, which is a necessary counterpoint to the film’s bloat. You can see the hint of something truly exceptional and powerful gleaming deep in the clogged excesses of Prisoners: if the film were only an hour shorter, maybe that light would be a little easier to see.