Prisoners is a ridiculous, self-important, exploitative piece of schlock masquerading as serious drama. It looks great, boasts a lustrous cast and is directed by Denis Villeneuve with, at least at first, convincing portentousness and all the grim determination that hundreds of thousands of gallons of artificial rain can muster. But it’s a really dumb movie, one that prods at big issues without the brains to do anything with them, and comes up with the kind of eye-rolling twists that wouldn’t look out of place in your bargain-basement standard serial killer fare like The Bone Collector or Kiss the Girls.
Prisoners announces itself as aiming for something loftier by stepping up to the plate and dealing with the ramifications of a sensitive subject like child abduction. Big Hollywood movies that tackle child abuse have invariably floundered in a swamp of revenge fantasy that serves to undermine any serious intentions (Sleepers, the overrated Mystic River). That Prisoners falls back on every standard thriller convention in the book quickly exposes the shallowness of the picture, but makes its failings that much worse; I don’t doubt that it wasn’t by the design of Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski, but it feels like they’ve cynically loaded the movie with every cheap audience-beating tactic they can muster.
The set up finds the daughters of two couples (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello’s Keller and Grace Dover and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis’ Franklin and Nancy Birch) going missing at Thanksgiving. A manhunt begins, and Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki (unfortunately, he doesn’t have any trickster moves up his sleeve, or his buttoned-up tieless shirt) is put in charge of the case. Prime suspect is Hollywood’s go-to guy for squirmy, chinless degeneracy Paul Dano (as camper van man with the mind of a 10-year old Alex Jones). With clues not exactly queuing up, and nothing on Alex, Jackman’s God-fearing survivalist takes matters into his own hands and imprisons the suspect in his own private Abu Ghraib.
Again, I’m sure the filmmakers’ intentions were honourable (as in torture is never the answer) but the narrative tells a different story; Jackman’s raging dad may not be right about Alex, but his methodical brutality sees him crack the case, leaving Loki to mop up the remains. The only way this would have been a successful condemnation of such methods would have been for Alex to have no connection the abduction at all (because, if not for Keller beating the living shit out of Alex and threatening him with a claw hammer and scalding him, his daughter would likely be dead). There’s nothing actually insightful or testing about this scenario, because it is built upon by such an overtly B-movie sensibility.
During the first half, there’s a vague possibility that Prisoners might amount to something more. The film is blessed with a very strong performance from Hugh Jackman, who is so convincing he enables you to forget momentarily how unsubtle Keller’s characterisation is. And Howard is also strong as a man too moral (read weak; he doesn’t have what it takes to uncover the truth) to have a stomach for Keller’s chosen methods (there’s an interesting moment where Nancy backs Keller’s terrible methods rather than her husband’s conscience). There are the shapings, or at least the potential, for a scenario akin to Doubt, where the weight of circumstantial evidence and “he looks the part” becomes all that is needed to judge, jury and execute.
But Prisoners isn’t even a tenth as insightful as John Patrick Shanley’s film. Alex drops clues to show us that Keller is right. In a film that lasts a mystifyingly elongated two-and-a-half hours, Guzikowski repeatedly artificially extends the plot by the most obvious and ruinous delaying tactics. Loki has to be one of the ineptest detectives ever, and it’s mystifying that he hitherto had a flawless track record for solving cases. It takes him an eternity to get to the bottom of the abduction of Alex, despite breathing down the neck of the solution and stating as much (he does a tour of his holding house, and receives a phone call just at that crucial moment prior to discovery). He happens across a suspect by good fortune, loses him, grabs him again, then enables a situation where said suspect blows the back of his own head off. Fortunately, the weirdo has left a cryptic clue, and in a bout of paper tossing frustration Loki discovers exactly the inspiration he needs. Yes, this movie is just that cliché-strewn.
Did Roger Deakins cinematography just distract everyone from the train wreck of a plot (credit where it’s a due, there’s a stunningly shot car race-against-time across a hallucinogenically rain-lashed motorway)? If Villeneuve had made The Frozen Ground instead, which I watched a few weeks ago and has far more compelling subject matter, his invested approach might have done something interesting with that true-life case and he could have left this unfortunate mess well alone. But Prisoners had everyone from Wahlberg (he has a producer credit, but then Wahlberg has a producer credit on everything) to Bale to DiCaprio circling it at one time or other. Is it just the case in Hollywood that, if you see an important subject is broached, it must be good? I guess so.
There are some unintentionally funny scenes in here too. Most of them involve Gyllenhaal trying to act his socks of, giving himself an eye tremor and the general air of someone distressed at having to make Zodiac all over again (the news is, he’s not; this is about as far from a masterpiece as one could imagine). There’s a hilarious scene where Jake opens a series of locked cases filled with snakes. Each time he opens one he has the same shocked as the last. And those snakes don’t half slither! Then there are the crew digging up shop mannequins. And Jake telling his Captain to go fuck himself (of course)! Best of all is the reveal of the true fiendish mastermind, in which Oscar Winner Melissa Leo pulls a gun and proceeds to explain just how she dang well did it. And she would have got away with it too, if wasn’t for that meddlesome Gyllenhaal.
I expect the decision not to show poor beardy Hugh (that’s his character right there, in that beard) being rescued is a comment on his culpability. But hey, unless they drag up his cold dead corpse (as opposed to the celebratory sound of him tooting on a whistle) he’s still the movie’s de facto hero. He wuz right, and he saw it through. He’s like Mad Mel in Ransom, but without the sense of malevolent fun.
Prisoners is not a good movie. It might have been a passably hokey B picture if it had been straight up honest about its gutter trawling. But Villeneuve has fashioned a mantle of importance and worthiness unsupported by the content; the results are both laughable and borderline offensive.