Prisoners, which stars Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal, starts out seeming to be one thing, but as the film goes on, it mutates into something else. Something much dumber. And as the film goes on it reveals it’s not really about anything but the twists and turns that come from it being a sneaky mystery. Alas, such films are much more entertaining when they know they’re goofy.
- Director: Denis Villeneuve
- Screenwriter: Aaron Guzikowski
- Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo
- Cinematography by: Roger Deakins
- Original Music by: Jóhann Jóhannsson
The Dovers are set to enjoy their Thanksgiving with neighbors and old friends the Birchs when — after dinner — both families lose their daughters to a kidnapper. Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) is called in and the first suspect is Alex Jones (Dano), who owns an RV the two kids were playing on. Jones is taken into custody, but there’s no evidence to hold him, which upsets Keller Dover (Jackman), who then goes about kidnapping Alex without his wife (Bello) knowing. He brings in both Franklin (Howard) and Nancy (Davis) Birch to help and/or stop him from torturing Alex. All the while Loki is running his investigation, which leads him to a corpse and a new suspect that isn’t Jones.
- Roger Deakins: Having made the leap to digital, it’s a testament to Roger Deakins talent that Prisoners is a mostly watchable film. Shots are well composed, and it’s beautiful to look at. Though this seemingly had more digital moments than Skyfall to these eyes, it’s still a shining example of what the technology can do these days.
The So So:
- The Performances: There’s some great actors here, and they work with the material they’re given, but it’s thin. Jake Gyllenhaal’s character is defined by having tattoos, and seems like a variation on the work he did in Zodiac. Hugh Jackman gives a strong performance, it’s just the character is simplistic and easily dismissed (a religious survival freak), while great actors like Viola Davis, Maria Bello and Terrence Howard have very little to do in the movie.
The Bad (Spoilers, Sorry):
- What it Becomes: As you might guess from the commercials, Keller does torture Alex Jones, and you might think “oh, the movie’s about that, how good people might cross lines because of their kids, etc.” But the further the movie goes along, it just uses that to advance the narrative. Alex serves as a plot point as he carefully doles out information that helps Keller in his quest. Likewise, Loki investigates someone who has a past as a pedophile and finds a corpse, and when the corpses connection to the mystery comes into play, it’s just gratingly obvious. And when the end has a car chase where the town — which has been portrayed as sleepy — suddenly has more traffic than Los Angeles you can see that this is way more in line with films like Silence of the Lambs, or (more to the point) knock offs like Kiss the Girls than an important Oscar-y movie.
- But as a Thriller: The ads want you to think this is a downbeat movie about pain and loss, but what it’s really about is its twists. And the best thrillers tend to embrace their absurdity, or get you really invested in their protagonist, or embrace a sense of fatalism. This does none of those things; it’s hard to tell if the movie knows how deeply, deeply silly it is. And for something that revolves around so much silliness to work — and it does work on some audience members — it helps to have fun watching it. But the film plays it straight for about an hour and change before it veers off into a very strange mystery that involves snakes and puzzles. The film may also not know what it’s stealing from, specifically from The Vanishing, which does this sort of thing a million times better.
- Not to Nickpick, But: Keller Dover and Detective Loki are their names? Really? No cop was watching Alex Jones when he was released? That one guy’s plan was to recreate a murder scene and then do the thing he does because of why exactly? How did the thing that happened at the end happen? He didn’t use that chance to leave his cell phone on? There was no evidence of that person being at that location how? Don’t phones have GPS devices in them that can be tracked, especially if someone is wanted for a felony? Just asking.
There are people who are going to enjoy this because they didn’t see what was coming. But anyone well versed in thrillers can see where this is going (for the most part), and that twist into absurd thriller is either going to make this for audiences, or break it. For me, it broke it.
Prisoners is in theaters everywhere September 20.