Prisoners (2013)

*. When a movie works it’s usually the result of a team effort. All the pieces have to come together just right. Failure, however, can be the result of a single bad element. The bad element in Prisoners is the script by Aaron Guzikowski, which was considered a very hot property but took a while to develop. What were they thinking?
*. All we have here is a bog-simple serial killer story, expanded to inordinate length (and, reportedly, the film was going to be even longer). Yes, there’s a twist at the end. But the final explanation for everything that is going on, which stitches together all the various gruesome findings that Detective Loki has been turning up, is so stupid that we’re left tossing our hands in the air. Really?
*. As ludicrous as the plot is, it could still have been cleared up in about five minutes if anyone involved in such an elaborate, generational conspiracy had the ability to talk. This is something they are either unable or unwilling to do, which makes no sense at all. Alex knows what’s going on and what he’s being asked, but for some reason clams up in the face of all Keller’s punishment. Admittedly, Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) doesn’t seem to know the first thing about torture (just beating someone to a pulp isn’t very effective), but why won’t he answer the questions put to him, except in laconic riddles?
*. Then there’s Bob Taylor. He also knows what’s going on but apparently has a bad case of PTSD. Or something. Anyway, he’d rather blow his head off than actually reveal anything. Joy has some excuse (she’s drugged up), but even later she’s in no condition to tell the police exactly what happened to her and Anna because . . . well, just because if anyone did that then there wouldn’t be a movie.
*. By the way, I think I missed how Joy escaped. Was she let go? For what reason?
*. Even at the end we have Anna, who presumably could tell the police where her father might be, or at the very least help with their investigation of the murder property, just sitting and staring at Loki, saying nothing. What is with these people? Reticence is made into a fetish in this movie.

*. So the script, for me, turned into a deal breaker. I didn’t credit any of it for a second. I could cut these notes off now, but I guess there are a few other things to say.
*. Prisoners was Denis Villeneuve’s first English-language feature, which is enough itself to give the trashy proceedings some extra weight. It’s a good looking movie, even when the dominant visual motif is of seeing things through a glass darkly. A significant amount of the film is shot looking through dirty windows, rain and mud-streaked windshields, and filthy or clouded mirrors. Apparently Melissa Leo even asked the prop department not to clean her character’s glasses at the end of each day’s shooting.

*. David Thomson really, really didn’t like Prisoners, calling it “hideous, cruel, degrading, depressing, relentless, prolonged, humorless, claustrophobic, and a mockery of any surviving tradition in which films are entertaining. And 153 minutes.” In particular he singled out the look of the film (which I liked): “the dreadful territory where American films are occurring, nowadays, places where nature has succumbed to development (and then development has been abandoned). You look at the place and think, Good God, do people have to live there? . . . Pictures go in search of real, cheap places to do their work, and America begins to look like a Soviet wasteland where the decaying billboards for forgotten advertisements bind up our wounds.”
*. This is a good rant, but I don’t think it’s fair. Actually the film is set in Pennsylvania (but was shot in Georgia), and while Thomson might not want to imagine people living in such an environment, many do. I think it looks like the same sort of locale where Buffalo Bill hailed from in The Silence of the Lambs, and I thought both the interiors and exteriors were realistically and dramatically rendered. Yes it’s a grim setting, but Villeneuve has a thing for these post-apocalyptic urban and natural landscapes. Keller is preparing for end times that have already arrived.
*. The other thing that follows from this being a Villeneuve movie is that nobody smiles. His universe is joyless, and his characters (I’m speaking of all his movies here) seem to walk around stunned by loss and misfortune. One gets the sense they don’t much enjoy being alive. Even the villain in Prisoners just goes about killing as some kind of grim duty.
*. I think it was the director of Donnie Darko who said that Jake Gyllenhaal really impressed him by how long he could go without blinking. I wonder if Villeneuve was thinking of that when he gave Loki the tic of blinking all the time. I can’t think of any other reason for it.
*. For all the intelligence implied by his improbable name, Loki isn’t that bright is he? And he sure as hell doesn’t believe in having back-up. As for driving like a madman to the hospital at the end instead of calling for an ambulance, I’m totally at a loss.
*. I think Hugh Jackman has more talent as an actor than he usually gets to exercise, but this is a lousy role. The movie unfortunately splits into two threads, which becomes a problem when what happens in one thread is a lot more interesting than the other. Loki’s investigations are interesting, in a very routine police-procedural way. The scenes set in Keller Dover’s torture crib are silly, ineffective, and dull.
*. Is there some kind of moral point being made? Not much of one. I guess just the usual one about the cycle of violence and the pointlessness of torture, themes that Villeneuve seems attracted to. But beyond that? Does Keller’s faith redeem him in any way? It’s given a lot of attention, and contrasted with the anti-faith of the killers, but ultimately I don’t see anything made of it.
*. So it’s longer than the usual psycho thriller and is an attractive production, tricked out with the distinctive languorous look favoured by this director. But at the end of the day it’s a formulaic and stupid script that can’t carry the weight it’s asked to. I think it needed to be either more serious or more fun. I would have enjoyed it more if they had played it as trash.

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