Director: Denis Villeneuve / Script: Aaron Guzikowski / Editing: Joel Cox & Gary Roach / DP: Roger Deakins
Cast: Hugh Jackman / Jake Gyllenhaal / Viola Davis / Maria Bello / Terrence Howard / Melissa Leo / Paul Dano
Dover Keller: Repairs & Remodelling…
The low-key opening to Prisoners, has God-bothering survivalist (and owner of suspiciously black beard) Keller Dover (‘KD’) watching his son shoot a deer. Is it his first? We’re not told, but the tone is sombre and autumnal, thanks to the ever-reliable DP Roger Deakins. I credit writer Aaron Guzikowski, for such an elegiac, pure cinematic statement and the courage of the film-maskers to release without any main titles; they’d only break the spell, after all. That said, I’ll deduct marks for giving the lead such a lame title: ‘Keller Dover’ is one of those typically American names that, to this Brit’s tin ear, sounds like the joint winners of a Nobel chemistry prize.
To the film, then. Money’s too tight to mention for KD, though he and wife Grace (Maria Bello in a thankless role in which she does little but, err, emote) do their best for the kids, sharing their Thanksgiving with the Birch family from up the road. They’re a nice black family, led by the matriarchal Nancy (Viola Davis, in a strong part shot-through with moral complexity) who, we learn, is a veterinarian and therefore un-squeamish (which’ll be handy, later-on). Her husband Franklin, is the weaker, more sensitive character in their relationship and he’s played with real soul, by Terrence Howard. The Birch’s are couched as a well-adjusted, lower-middle class family, so that when things go off the rails, as they surely will, the audience have sympathetic characters to root for.
We leave those rails behind, when the youngest daughter of each family leave the party at the Birch’s house, to return to the Dover’s; I mean, they’re friends. There’s nothing to do and they’re b.o.r.e.d.: why wouldn’t they want to hang-out?
Except they then disappear…
Cue: a frantic, panicked reaction by KD, who’s all-but frothing at the mouth in his efforts at finding them. This in itself is a telling wrinkle in KD’s make-up. Here’s a survivalist – a ‘prepper’ – with a cellar-full of tinned goods and water-purification tablets, blessed / cursed with a pathological distrust of ‘Big Government’, or any prospect of receiving help from ‘Authority’. Such independence goes with the territory, but he can’t solve this problem alone. This leads the other Responsible Adults to call-in the cops, if only to follow-up on a potential lead: a grubby RV (camper-van to you and me) was seen parked outside KD’s house that afternoon. Plus, we know its got something to with the abduction, as director Villeneuve plonked his camera inside and shot footage of the girls through one of its grimy windows, thus letting us in on a secret.
Cue: Jake Gyllenhaal, who’s eating his Thanksgiving dinner alone, in a soulless diner… He’s a Detective with a past never explored in the script. We’re left to guess: so I will… Going by the interesting tattoos on his knuckles, hand and neck, I’d say he used to be a bassist in a thrash-metal band that, despite early promise and one underground hit album, split over ‘creative differences’. Now a detective with bills to pay and a new life to build for himself, he’s eating Thanksgiving alone in a diner, so I’d say the ‘new life’ bit still needs some work. Then there’s the name: Detective Loki means he’s still the anarchic rebel at-heart. If pushed, I’d say he took the Norse god of mischief as a stage name and it felt too good to drop it after the band folded… Besides, it feels natural to have two crap names for the leads; balances things out.
So Loki gets the call, leaves the diner and soon has the RV cornered. Its driver panics, stoves the van into a tree and is duly nicked… Except he would be, had Forensics turned-up any evidence from the RV, or the driver was, you know, not Paul Dano… Dano puts in a convincing shift as Alex, a man ‘with a mental age of ten’. He looks terrified at the situation he finds himself in and the script – and clever direction by Villeneuve – around his initial detention, is careful to elicit mixed emotions of sympathy and horror, even though we still don’t know the extent of Alex’s involvement in the abduction. The police are unconvinced however, which is why they let Alex go free… Uh-huh.
And why, I hear you ask? The film is called ‘Prisoners’, remember. Not all prisoners find themselves in a literal jail. Sometimes, the most effective gaols are those we build for ourselves… Bear that in-mind, as the film then delights in throwing one red herring after another in our direction.
The priest’s cellar! The would-be psycho-killer! The Hitchcockian reveal! (No, really).
Then there’s KD’s torture of Alex… I’ll not go further, but I did think that this was the point at which the film began losing me. I can see what Guzikowski was going for here: drawing a picture of just how far someone like KD, is prepared to go in order to find his daughter, but with every (ghastly) escalation of this abuse, he loses sight of the fact that he’s torturing a man-child in order to save an actual child. There’s no equivocation here, just the blind pursuit of an end-goal that will, inevitably, have dire consequences for KD, thus revealing he’s as much a prisoner as anyone else in this picture.
KD’s credibility as a troubled character is given initial weight by Hugh Jackman, but as the film ground-on, I did come to see his performance as a little ‘one-note’. In Les Miserables (2012), I thought his Valjean struck the right note, mixing human frailty with an inner grit that, I believed, had carried him through. Yet here, despite the downbeat opening and the Thanksgiving scenes, all we get from Mr. Jackman is an increasingly theatrical caricature, who’s soon as capable of committing similar crimes, as that of the person being sought. Once again, we return to the idea that ‘prisoners come in all shapes and sizes’, but I just thought him in-credible.
That goes for those in his circle, too, for I found their tacit acceptance of his behaviour even less credible. Then again, had I been in that situation, would I be any different? Who knows: I can only judge the film in front of me.
So let’s recap the whole ‘prisoners’ theme. Who have we got?
The two girls, natch.
KD? Trapped in his prejudicial outlook (until a deeper hole is revealed).
Mrs Dover? Imprisoned by grief.
Mrs Birch? Entrapped by her collusion and guilt.
Alex? A prisoner of both his young mind and, later, KD.
Loki? Of a past he can’t let go and a future he’s struggling to reconcile with the realities of his job.
Grandma? Oh. Err. Maybe?
The picture’s twist? Well it had me guessing I admit, though on-reflection, it’s all a bit ho-hum, even though Villeneuve concealed it well and staged it for effect. I’m just not sure the picture can withstand multiple viewings: it’s no Se7en, for example. Despite the odd flashes of brilliance in the writing, Prisoners exists in a crowded genre, the core elements of which, can only be remixed so far, before it becomes something else: thus invalidating its id. Its one job is to THRILL: that’s it. The girls have to survive: that pay-off is never in doubt. It’s how it gets there that matters, but this picture’s a one-trick-pony, lacking a richer hinterland to sustain closer attention: leading to the inevitable question: what’s been lost in the edit? After all, there were two editors credited: what needed to be lost? And found? For example, I can’t believe that business with the priest, just ended there…
Other problems? It’s a good forty minutes too long, some of the dialogue is unforgivably ludicrous and it’s a little over-wrought towards the end, as it ramps-up for a hollow climax. If you want proof, I give you the final car-chase and ask you to consider whether this was a worthy use of everyone’s time, budget and talents?
It’s the kind of film that the studios pump-out each and every year and fling at the awards circuit, in the hope something approaching credibility will stick. A medium-budget thriller, promising a quick shooting schedule in a (cheap) location. Promising director. Stellar cast, keen to build relationships with a director who might use them again in something bigger… Think Insomnia (2002), The Snowman (2016). Gone Girl (2014) and any number of similar pictures.
In the case of Prisoners, it was Villeneuve’s first feature in English, having cut his teeth making low-budget features in his native Quebec. Guzikowski went-on to create & write a gritty drama that ran for two seasons on US TV (The Red Road) and is currently writing a remake of Papillon (1973) (another classic that can’t stay dead, thanks to a brain-drain from Hollywood, that’s leaving them bereft of originality). Roger Deakins would lens both Sicario (2015) and the brave Blade Runner 2049 (2016) for the maturing Villeneuve and so on…
Each film production assembles its own, unique team. If they work well together, it’s no surprise when they take opportunities to re-form. You might say they become ‘Prisoners’ of their own acquaintance: but come to think of it, aren’t we all?
Pray for the best, prepare for the worst.