Prisoners

October 4, 2013

Jake Prisoners Loki 1

Much has been made of the death of mid-budget adult dramas and thrillers in the movie marketplace, and not without a great deal of truth.  Box office and, consequently, studio budgets (or is it the other way around?) are sinking more and more money into tentpole affairs looking to do huge dollars, and the modestly sized films that might appeal to an older audience are shut out.  The reasons of this are many and certainly debatable, but either way, it should be quite refreshing for a well reviewed (and festival hit) independent feature to top the box office.  There are few, if any, special effects and so little bombast in Dennis Villenueve’s Prisoners that it’s so-far moderate success (in the admittedly barren September/October period) might seem laudable on its own.  Of course I’m ignoring the success of Lee Daniels’ The Butler, but there’s something slightly different about Serious And Significant Films About History/Race that is just plain different from a thriller.  The problem is that Prisoners is, while cinematic in duration and even somewhat in ambition, it isn’t terribly successful.

Now I am not one to yearn for the days of the late 90s/early 00s when the post-Se7en landscape meant there was a slew of gaudy crime thrillers starring Ashley Judd and/or Morgan Freeman.  Most of those films, from Kiss the Girls to The Bone Collector are fairly risible affairs and I’d argue that their eventual demise came because TV procedurals got more (technically, at least) sophisticated and could be just as gory to boot.  That audience catered for, at least as far as the simple whodunit aspect and the violent yucks were concerned, and that left cinema with one less market for its more mediocre products (Zodiac is a notable exception, as it is one of the finest films of the 00s but even it was largely a box office failure).  Instead of the procedural, then, one imagines that the genre would have to dig deeper and understand that the whodunit aspect is one of the least important in this film, and instead using it as a framework to explore something else, whether that be characters or institutions or otherwise.  Prisoners understands this concept – why would a standard thriller need to be 146 minutes long? -, but it doesn’t have the focus it needs to pull it off.  There are several movies happening here at once, and none of them coalesce particularly well together, nor are they individually given the necessary depth to make them interesting on their own.  Instead they’re just given a lot of time, as though quantity were a substitute for quality.

The story involves two girls being abducted one afternoon in a small Pennsylvania town.  Their fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) are understandably distraught, as are the wives but the movie doesn’t much care about them other than as vessels for shrieking grief or sad stoicism.  Actually, the movie doesn’t much care about Franklin either, who could be seen as a stand-in for weak-willed Democrats to Keller’s ruthlessly fundamentalist Republican.  The initial suspect is the mentally handicapped Alex (Paul Dano), who is highly suspect but there’s no evidence to hold him, so he’s released.  He says something cryptic and Keller is convinced he knows something.  This results in a long and labored morality play about torture and its effectiveness that is more tedious and sputtering than enlightening (for one thing, it’s hard to care about either of the fathers given how sketchy they’ve been drawn).  Meanwhile, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is tasked with finding the kids while also dealing with the hysteric parents.

Loki’s storyline, and as a result, Loki himself, is the most interesting or, at least, enjoyable.  Much of this has to do with the basic nature of the mystery thriller, where the detective meets various suspects while trying to piece the puzzle together.  Though hardly inspiring, the central mystery is fairly enjoyable, even if there comes a point where you want to scream at Loki to notice this thing and put it together with that thing.  Gyllenhaal, despite relying far too much on a blinking tic, is also the best performer in the movie.  Though Loki has no real background or character arc or, indeed, much of anything to him as written, Gyllenhaal does a lot of work to make him compelling on screen, suggesting a potent mix of drive and cynicism with a dash of angry awkwardness that distinguishes him anyone else in the rather rote proceedings.  This is why I forgive him for the excessive blinking, because if you’re not given anything, I respect just throwing everything at the wall even if it doesn’t work.

Visually, Villenueve keeps things relatively flat and controlled.  It’s not flashy filmmaking to say the least, but given the abundance of flash in these kinds of films it’s something of a relief.  Working with the inimitable cinematographer Roger Deakins, he uses the blue and grey palette for the cold quite well, though Deakins is only given a few moments to shine, most of them at night.  By far the best visual sequence involves a candle-lit vigil that turns into a chase through the backyards of a neighborhood, with the sudden brightness of the sensor-activated lights on the houses casting shadows through the wooded areas behind.  It’s gorgeous and evocative in a way the story or anyone in it isn’t, but I’m happy for such moments of glee given the long, long running time.

And we’re back to that running time.  I can see how Villenueve and co saw it as necessary and (on their part, probably) earned, but for a film that wants to delve into the dark nature of desperate people when they’re stricken by grief either from a long time ago or just recently set upon – so much so that they’re willing to commit unspeakable acts of torture – it never really scratches the surface beyond glances.  The hefty theme of “prisoners” and just what that means and the various ways people can become them is both too easy and too poorly executed to have any real impact.  Instead we’re left with a solid-but-overdone detective plot, a sidebar into deranged right-wingery, and a dash of “shrieking wife” to mix it all in.  I’m happy to see the next “adult thriller” that comes my way, and I hope there’s a chance for people to make them and for audiences to see them more and more.  Just please, if you’re going to make them, understand the possibilities and, more importantly, focus on them.

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