Prisoners is a movie that surprised a lot of people, myself included, mainly because it managed to refrain from giving away 90 percent of the plot in its trailer. With it’s clever marketing and big-name cast, Prisoners might very well be one of the murder mystery movies to be released in a very long time. The film is unique in that it manages to mix ultra-realistic, incredibly dark and gritty drama with sensationalized murder mystery intrigue without causing either element to feel out of place, and indeed highlighting the respective strengths of both.
Directed by the relatively unknown Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, who’s other films are almost exclusively foreign language pieces, Prisoners as well its predecessor, Incindies, make for a stunning debut. Written by Aaron Guzikowski, the film is rock solid from a thematic sense and almost reminds me of something Paul Thomas Anderson might make if he had run out of anti-depressants in the dead of winter. To say the film is bleak is a phenomenal understatement. Every shot, every angle, and virtually every character is designed to evoke a feeling of desolation and decay, even perhaps disgust, as events unfold amidst possibly the most depressing backdrop of small town America ever conceived, and frankly, I couldn’t be more pleased. It’s this kind of thematic and visual cohesion that tends to take immersion to the next level, and creates a fitting parallel between the inner turmoil of the characters and the aesthetic of the setting.
Starring Hugh “Why Don’t I Have An Oscar Yet?” Jackman as the reactionary, ultra-conservative, hyper-religious father figure and Jake Gyllenhaal as the over-stressed, over-worked Detective Loki, the film seems to take a perverse pleasure to pushing the limits of what a human being can take in times of extreme stress and grief. I heard another critic suggest that, in any other mystery movie, either the father or the officer would either rise to the occasion and become the hero of the hour, but in Prisoners, that hero is nowhere to be found. Instead, the film shows us exactly how low a man wracked with grief and obsessed with vengeance is capable of sinking. Therein lies most of the film’s seer brutality and pitch black tone, which for the most part is pulled off extremely successfully. Now, although Jackman admittedly has the flashier and more dramatic part, special recognition should be given in this instance to Gyllenhaal, who performs marvelously as a lone combatant in a terrifying and incomprehensible world. Be that as it may, Prisoners is not without it’s flaws, most of which concern the story which it so carefully kept under wraps prior to its release.
The problem I face when examining issues with the plot is that I may spoil some important twists. Therefore, in order to preserve some of the mystique and intrigue, I’ll maintain a measure of ambiguity. First, there is a massive portion of the storyline, and I’m talking about 30 to 45 minutes, that deals with a red herring that proves to be ludicrously convoluted a built up to a largely unnecessary degree, but is later revealed to have almost no connectivity to the overarching plot. The connection is extremely subtle, and I’d honestly forgive anyone who thought that an hour and a half of a completely different movie had been spliced into the middle of Prisoners. I understand that the intended purpose of such a maneuver was to keep the tension high by removing the payoff until a point further into the story, but the degree to which this little tangent was played up was a bit overkill. Secondly, there’s one specific point in the story when Jackman’s character, who is presumably possessed of enough bloodlust and murder frenzy at this point to shame the Golden Horde, is held hostage essentially by someone’s grandma. The dissonance between what we had come to expect from Jackman’s character up to this point and how he acts during this specific altercation was enough to seriously take me out of the moment enough for me to question what must have been going through the screenwriter’s mind, which is never a good sign. Jackman literally marches up to this woman’s house carrying a set of tools for the explicit purpose of torturing this individual for information, and when he’s confronted, he basically surrenders like a little lost lamb. In what context is that supposed to make any kind of sense whatsoever?
Despite these few, albeit significant, flaws, Prisoners is a very satisfying, very engaging mystery that is a testament to the ability of both the cast and the director. Personally, I’m very much looking forward to what else Villeneuve has in store for us. For those seeking some thematically satisfying fare after this drought of a summer we’ve had, you could most certainly do worse than Prisoners.
Rating: 4 out of 5