Prisoners is set in a economically depressed small-town suffering from barely hidden villainy. It’s a chilly, nihilistic film, standing out even in a year filled with pessimism. Most of this you’ve seen before and most of it (particularly the ending) feels a tad preposterous. Additionally, the film falters because it can’t decide on how best to interpret its world of criminality. Still, there are things to admire here; particularly the film’s accomplished visual sense, searing use of music, and committed performances. Prisoners still justifies investment, especially if you’re a fan of Hugh Jackman screaming himself horse (which I personally am).
Set in an undisclosed small town in Pennsylvania (but actually shot in Georgia), Prisoners begins innocuously. The Dovers, headed by Maria Bello and a bearded Hugh Jackman, are long-time friends with the Birches, played by Viola Davis and Terrance Howard. After noshing on Thanksgiving the two sets of parents are jolted out of their post-feast stupor when they realize that the youngest child from each clan has gone missing. The only clue is a mysterious old camper that had been spotted lurking in the modest, grey neighborhood
Enter Jake Gyllenhaal as the stringy-haired, twitchy-eyed Detective Loki (the film’s best performance). The detective, following the tradition of dogged, emotionally crippled gum-shoes is resolute. He is determined to find the two missing children. When a potential witness is discovered (a dead-eyed Paul Dano) but no corroborating evidence, the two fathers of the missing girls take it upon themselves to find the truth, pushing themselves far past the limits of their morality.
Anyone would be hard-pressed to label Prisoners entertaining. With its bleak mood, claustrophobic mise-en-scene and for the most part unlikable characters, nobody is going to get their jollies here, unless you’re a real weirdo. But is it a good film? This is somewhat dubious, primarily because the film doesn’t seem to have a coherent plot line or thematic structure. It’s convoluted, grappling with a story that drifts between a myriad of characters and case leads. There are half-formed ideas about the role of spirituality and social institutions when confronting the hellish side of human life, in addition to a rather uninspired exploration of vigilantism.
What is more communicative than Aaron Guzikowski’s storytelling (whose script does actually have nice moments of characterization) is its unshakable mood of existential dread. Much of the credit for this should be paid to the illustrious Roger Dreakins. His inimitable lens starkly captures a depressed city cloaked by endless rain and what looks almost like a nuclear winter. He gives the film’s environment a brooding air of grit and fear, turning Prisoners into undoubtedly a movie of its time.
Augmenting this tone is the music by Johann Johannsson. His string-centric compositions are highly congruent with the not only the film’s visual palette, but also imbue the story with some palpable emotional cords. This is something which is missing from the human characters we meet in this unpleasant tale.
And not that this is any fault of the cast. Nobody is phoning it in here. Hugh Jackman for example (still hairy and still seething after this summer’s woeful The Wolverine), has the arduous task of carrying much of the film while playing a rather repugnant character. His Keller Dover is a man possessed, haunted by past memories of familial trauma and wound tight with an explosive temper. Dover is a pious man, insistent upon his own self-reliance. This is a quality which inevitably leads to him clashing with law enforcement over the case.
For some Jackman may come off as a bit over the top in Prisoners, with several scenes featuring him screaming at the top of his lungs, dripping with tears, and snarling with vindictive, animalistic fury. Personally, I found his level of intensity to be appropriate considering the circumstances of the story. However, I can also understand how certain individuals will find him a bit too vociferous. Sometimes he appears a tad too close to the feral, lone-wolf nature he so perfectly captures with Wolverine.
However it is Jake Gyllenhaal who is the star of the show. He elevates a role that is a stock, pulpy cliché through the sheer force of his body language and his eyes. His Detective Loki is a man exhausted by life, perfectly fitting for the cinematic world he inhabits. Everything elicits a long, exasperated sigh from him. A noticeable facial tick hints at his fractured fatigued mental and physical state. Yet he is incredibly fastidious in his approach to the film’s central mystery, a zeal which potentially originates from his own childhood experience with violence and abuse. There is rarely a second when you don’t buy Gyllenhaal’s work in this film. He acts as the perfect subtle foil to Jackman’s rip-roaring, teeth-gnashing patriarch.
The other major adult roles are similarly occupied by dramatic heavy hitters, but are unfortunately given far less to do than Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Terrance Howard, playing Franklin Birch, is largely squandered (which has been his fate in the post-Hustle and Flow era). Viola Davis and Maria Bello are mostly relegated to whimpering specters after their characters’ children go missing, which also feels like a waste of talent. The women are more personifications of grief than characters, partial catalysts that only exist to push their husbands into action. Melissa Leo fares a little better. She shows up with a surprising character, nearly unrecognizable as the aunt to Paul Dano’s Alex. Always an innovative actress Leo manages to impress here, despite being hidden underneath perhaps one of the most stereotypical “old woman” outfits in modern times.
Working with such a talented cast and buffered by superlative work from the tech departments, it is strange that Dennis Villeneuve’s film doesn’t feel more complete, or more… profound. Despite all of the dramatic posturing and all of the obviously genuine ambition, the final conclusions one draws from Prisoners are ambiguous at best. The film is attempting to suggest something about the methods we employ in order to confront the seemingly random universe, that often our blind allegiance to institutions, whether that be adhering to a faith, or placing trust in the police, often have us coming up short and perhaps even harm us further. This is a fair idea to explore, although it doesn’t make for very emotionally involving viewing. It’s also not necessarily new either. There are superior films such as The Vanishing and Seven that deal with the same theme. However, these films distinguished themselves through more innovative structures or (god forbid) a moment or two of humor.
Instead, Prisoners opts to channel the spirit of the 1990’s thriller, delivering a twist ending which doesn’t feel telegraphed but certainly feels a tad absurd. The absurdity of the final revelation is then exacerbated by a number of chance occurrences (specific characters realizing critical details at just the right moment). These moments compounds the silliness and are detrimental to the film’s credibility as being anything more than a standard piece of entertainment. The coincidental nature also seems to refute the message that other elements of the film support, which is that its story’s universe is random. The hackneyed depiction of vigilante justice also goes nowhere. Some punishment does seem to be meted out, but the film also seems to evoke the possibility of redemption.
What we are left with is a film which can’t fully commit to anything. It’s thematic incoherence, combined with the preposterous conclusion, degrade Prisoners into something removed from the tangible, hyper-realism of a Vanishing or a Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. Simultaneously, its bleak, chilly tone often becomes over-bearing. There is none of the fun melodrama which was evident in Spacey’s walk into the police station covered in blood in Seven, or in those mind-blowing conversations between Clarice Starling and Lecter in Silence of the Lambs. Essentially, it’s a film which rests in the awkward middle. Its story’s events oscillate continually between hyperbolic and banal depictions of crime.