Tuesday, September 24, 2013


Grade: 14/D

The subject of child endangerment in thrillers is a sticking point for many critics. Handled well, it can be gut wrenching. Handled poorly, it can come off as exploitative. Prisoners, the new film from Denis Villeneuve, somehow falls into both camps. The film is, to some degree, a very skillfully crafted thriller, but it is also one of the year’s dumbest and most hateful films.

Hugh Jackman stars as Keller Dover (woof, that name), who suffers a parent’s worst nightmare when his daughter (along with the daughter of his best friend, played by Terrence Howard) goes missing on Thanksgiving Day. The man in charge of the case, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), first investigates Alex Jones (Paul Dano) a man with the IQ of a 10-year-old who was seen near the Dovers’ home in his RV around the time of the crime. Loki releases Jones due to lack of evidence, but Dover remains convinced that Jones is responsible, and kidnaps and tortures him to get a confession.

Certain critics have compared Prisoners to Mystic River and Gone Baby Gone for its attempt to mix a pulpy plot with moral thorniness (some have also compared it to Zodiac, but that seems almost entirely due to Gyllenhaal’s presence). It’s true that all three films have a true crime feel that’s spiked with feelings of human loss and pain, and like the earlier films, Prisoners has a number of thrilling set-pieces. Prisoners is also aided by Roger Deakins’ gorgeous rain and snow-soaked cinematography, and by a performance by Gyllenhaal that suggests a man who’s both exhausted by the horrors of the world and compelled, to near self-destructive degrees, to keep fighting them.

But there’s a major difference between the earlier films, which have a mournful air and genuinely wrestle with questions of morality in law and vengeance, and Prisoners, which uses themes of religious guilt almost entirely as window dressing for what’s ultimately a cheap paperback thriller story. The opening shot of Jackman and his son hunting whilst reciting the Our Father establishes the portentous tone early on. Villeneuve might be skilled with suspense, but it’s exasperating when a director believes he needs to establish an air of joylessness before the misery actually starts.

The religious themes are then promptly thrown into the background only to be trotted out halfheartedly whenever screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski remembers that we’re supposed to feel conflicted about Jackman’s actions. Jackman, for his part, is given little to do but shout his way through the film. He’s not awful, necessarily, but he’s given a one-note role that seems particularly grating when compared to the quieter, more successfully conflicted turns by Viola Davis and Terrence Howard.

Villeneuve tries to use to power of suggestion more often than not during the torture scenes, but this backfires on him and winds up feeling more like hedging on Jackman’s feelings of guilt more than anything resembling good taste. That feeling is expounded as the film reaches the final hour, at which point the film goes from enervating to infuriating. The plot twists grow increasingly contrived, questions of religious guilt give way to a queasy suggestion of righteousness, and Villeneuve and Guzikowski drag out the suggestion that young girls might be killed to near-pornographic degrees, using child endangerment (and implied child abuse) as a way to up the gasp factor. The film has pretensions of artfulness, but the most artful true crime thrillers ask questions, moral or otherwise. The only question at the end of Prisoners is whether the film is dumber than it is repugnant. Answer: either way, it’s trash.

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