Watching Prisoners is like reading a bus stop mystery novel written by someone who still thinks his work is worthy of a Pulitzer someday. It’s dark, brooding, heavy, emotionally draining and tries desperately for a grand thematic payoff as it delves valiantly into, I don’t know, the duality of man? Man’s pathetic vulnerability against his surrounding as well as his own nature? God’s desertion of man in the face of profound and unstoppable evil?
You take your pick. Meanwhile, I’ll just move on by informing you that you’re in for a run-of-the-mill detective story, artfully executed yet bloated beyond belief as far as both the running time and the dramatic aspirations are concerned.
With operatic performances full of sorrow and guilt, a heavy-handed direction that mercilessly hammers in every single bit of social commentary with loud, unabashed thuds and the gorgeous cinematography that belongs in a much, much better film, Prisoners lays on a thick, almost impenetrable layer of Oscar-bait on top a straightforward genre retread.
Before the advance screening, the person in charge of the film’s PR read the audience a sincerely-written letter by director Denis Villeneuve about how he wished us, the audience, would talk about the themes of the story and the hard decisions the characters made long after the film was over.
Yet all my film critic friends and I could talk about afterwards was how the "unexpected" third act twist villain of the story monologued like a Bond villain and how one of the protagonists made the dumb choice of drinking a mysterious concoction offered by the same killer ("Didn’t he see The Vanishing?", we asked each other).
Okay, let’s assume we’re all jaded and snobby film critics who all think our crap smell like roses, but the general audience didn’t seem much fazed either. Villeneuve’s letter and the heavy subject matter of his 153-minute opus suggested that his intention was for the audience to leave the theater in a catatonic daze, managing to control their emotions long enough to curl up in a fetal position and weep themselves to sleep once they got home.
But the general response when the PR people asked the audience what they though of the film was, "It was okay". No, Kiss The Girls is "okay", Along Came a Spider is "okay", Prisoners was supposed to be devastating. So what went wrong?
It surely opens with a thematically heavy-handed metaphor. As we watch religious family man Keller (Hugh Jackman) teach his son how to hunt a helpless deer, anyone who knows the film’s grim subject matter of child abduction and murder through a quick scan of the film’s IMDB page or watching the trailers knows that Keller will soon find himself in the same spot as the deer, as the ruthlessness of nature takes his beloved daughter away and leaves him in a spot of loss and desperation.
Keller’s daughter as well as his friend Franklin’s (Terrence Howard) little girl disappears during a get together at Franklin’s house. Both families suspect the driver of a mysterious RV that was parked outside. Once the driver of the RV, Alex (PaulDano), who has the mental capacity of a ten-year-old boy, is caught and subsequently released due to lack of evidence, Keller takes matters into his own hands.
Keller kidnaps Alex and decides to torture him until he confesses where the girls are kept. Are his actions justified since he’s convinced his daughter will die in a manner of days if he can’t get the vital information from Alex? I bet you didn’t expect a Zero Dark Thirty-style examination on the validity of enhanced interrogation techniques in what appears to be a family drama/thriller/mystery.
Meanwhile, bafflingly named detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is on the case. Gyllenhaal gives the character a nervous blinking tic for some reason, I guess in an attempt to find anything original in an underwritten character. After his natural performance in End of Watch, the quality of overall Gyllenhaal cop performances take a slight dive with his uninspired work in Prisoners.
While interrogating sex offenders with hopes of finding the girls, Loki comes across a shocking discovery in the basement of a priest who we assume was a child molester, during a tense scene that might be the best in the film.
The priest tells Loki an extraordinary story and it’s hard to disagree with the decision he made. If he is indeed telling the truth, was this violent act by the priest his attempt at redemption? You’ve got a problem on your hands when such a tiny sub-plot is a hell of a lot more interesting than the rest of your entire movie.
I hoped beyond hope that Prisoners was not going to devolve into a straightforward mystery-thriller and that this coincidental find would remain as a thematic parallel for Keller’s questionable decisions.
But in true genre fashion, this and other wildly coincidental events suddenly come together as pieces of the same puzzle as the mystery is conveniently solved in the hokiest manner imaginable, complete with a "killer with a quirky fetish" (This time it’s snakes and mazes, hooray!) and an incomprehensible, overly-religious motivation for the killer’s actions.
Suddenly, after sitting through two and a half hours of emotional torture, we find ourselves inside an overwrought climax that belongs in trash like the recent Halle Berry vehicle The Call. The least the filmmakers could do would have been to reduce the running time to the genre’s standard 90 to 100 minutes.
I have a feeling that director Villeneuve, who helmed the respected thriller Incendies, got punk’d by Prisoner’s producers into thinking he was directing a socially relevant piece of visual art, when he was simply executing a pulp detective story with A-list actors. His letter to the audience definitely hints to the validity of this theory. It’s still a decent film and you can do a lot worse during the dry September season, but a profound masterpiece it is not.