All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In the new movie, Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve can’t seem to make up his mind about whether to be obvious or ominous, so he wavers between the two, sometimes being overly portentous and dense, other times blatantly clobbering the audience with information, some of which, we learn, are red herrings.
While Prisoners derives its tension, and earns its audience’s patience, from being a kidnapping mystery, it is as much a study of several personalities, and that’s another matter on which Villeneuve doesn’t seem able to make a clear decision, about which aspect he should emphasize, the what or the who. He generally opts for the who. The movie often loses focus as Villeneuve concentrates closely on one or another character but lets the mystery, the element that holds our interest, be shuffled to the background. In one scene, Hugh Jackman’s character, Keller, whose daughter, about age 6, has been abducted, admonishes Jake Gyllenhaal’s character, the police detective assigned to find her, for allowing too much time to elapse in making significant headway on the case. That’s the way the audience comes to feel about Villeneuve’s pacing and storytelling. It keeps veering too far for too long from the point. Curiosity about the fate of two little girls helps to maintain suspense, and Prisoners has its share of honestly intense sequences, but the forays into other plot lines, in particular one involving Len Cariou as a priest with a record as a sex offender, and into excesses that wear out their welcome, prevent the movie from gripping us or being totally satisfying. I, for one, stayed in my seat because I sincerely wanted to know what happened to the children and whether they’re alive at the end. The character studies didn’t exactly bore me, but they slowed the action and interrupted the suspense in ways that made me wonder if Villeneuve was ever going to get back to the grittier tasks of finding out the details and results of the kidnapping and revealing them to us.
Because Villeneuve wanted to delve into psychology as much as he wanted to make an action thriller, Prisoners at times seems disjointed. The beginning is so meticulously slow, and rife with possible clues, it makes you worry about whether the movie will ever acquire some energy or give the audience the chance to get involved. The last quarter, in which Jackman’s and Gyllenhaal’s characters realize they’ve separately cracked the case, is more fraught with tension and can bring you to the edge of your seat or at least cause nail-biting worry. Several salient details tie back neatly to extended shots that seemed indulgent at the beginning of Prisoners, but as clever as some of Villeneuve’ set-ups turn out to be, e.g. a revelation about why a suspected kidnapper tends to park in front of a specific house, they would have been more potent if they had been presented more subtly. Or more nimbly.
Villeneuve and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski aim at complexity they don’t achieve. Guzikowski has plotted well, and he has aspirations to say something about emotions and obsessions that drive people to commit extreme acts, but his ambitions don’t translate well to the screen
Guzikowski shows us several kinds of prisoners. Most literally, his title refers to the kidnapped girls, friends who leave a Thanksgiving dinner to get something at a neighboring house and do not return. It also represents the hundreds of other children who have gone missing, some to be molested or murdered, some to be kept as the wards of their captors. Next, there is any person held against his or her will. Then, there is the imprisonment of the mind, the emotional or sociopathic impulses that triumph over perspective and proportion and allow or compel people to commit acts that cannot be accepted or endured.
Interesting concept, right? Intellectually, those various themes of imprisonment are worth exploring. They are intrinsically fascinating and potentially dramatic. Prisoners touches on all of them but somehow misses in taking its themes beyond concept to engaging entertainment. For every irony, there’s an inconsistency. For every reference that reflects cleverly on an earlier scene, there’s a passage that makes little sense and seems unrelated to the movie as a whole. The script’s intention is clear, but its path to doing all that it intends has too many detours. It doesn’t help that Villeneuve often chooses to be heavy-handed rather than sly or that he likes to build high points of action or drama that are overdone, as if the director said to himself that he needs some dudgeon, real or artificial, in a sequence instead of letting the movie’s tense and calm moments come naturally. Especially since Prisoners leaves room for genuine emotional peaks and valleys. The result is a movie that rambles when it is should be taut and that often goes too far when a taste or a glimpse would be enough. Villeneuve forgets that the crime, the abduction of the girls, is the thing and lets the diversions, thought-provoking though they may be, take center stage.
Prisoners is a tale of kidnapping. Two families that live down the block from each other sit down to Thanksgiving dinner at the Birch house. The Birches and their guests, the Dovers, each have two children about the same ages. The younger children are girls about age 6. After dinner, the Dover girl asks if she and her playmate, the Birch girl, can go to her house and look for a toy whistle she has misplaced. The parents agree but tell the girls to ask their older siblings to accompany them. The girls choose to ignore that request and go off on their own. They do not return.
Luckily, the older Dover child, a teenage son, noticed his sister’s interest in a vehicle that was parked near the Birch home when the four kids went out for an earlier walk. The girls’ disappearance and the suspicious vehicle set the plot in motion.
It also sets reactions in motion. Hugh Jackman’s character, Keller Dover, has already been seen as a man of action. He likes to be ready for anything and to pounce at the slightest provocation. In Keller’s world, all things have to be fixed before they get further out of hand and with whatever it takes to fix them. He has a hair-trigger temper and responds to everything with intense, seething emotion that makes his face tighten, his hands shake, and his voice choke as he goes through a mini-tantrum or full-blown violent onslaught. Dover wants his daughter found and her kidnapper punished. He wants it so badly, he cannot see that everyone is working towards that objective, just not fast enough, thorough enough, or intensely enough for Dover.
Jackman’s character is contrasted by Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, named after a Norse god of misrule, and unorthodox in appearance, but one who puts methodical police approaches ahead of intuition and coolheadedness ahead of emotion. Loki can lose his temper, and his poise, but he goes about his case as a professional and never loses sight of what he wants to accomplish, finding the missing girls.
The differences between Dover and Loki are another source of conflict, one Villeneuve uses when he wants to raise the relatively quiet volume of his movie.
Loki’s investigation takes on a life of his own. If his investigative meanderings were to be taken seriously, it would look as if the rural Pennsylvania town in which he works is a hotbed of abduction, molestation, and people being held against their will. So much is found in basements and hidden rooms within a 10-mile radius, it’s a wonder anyone feels safe or would think of letting their child play or travel unwatched in this fictional Conyers, Pa. What’s more, it seems this criminal activity has been going on for a while, which makes you wonder why detectives before Loki failed to discover any of the rampant perfidy in their midst.
Jackman’s Dover is also contrasted by Terrence Howard’s portrayal of Franklin Birch, whose daughter is also kidnapped. Birch is more content to let the police handle matters and to cooperate and grieve quietly. He understands Dover’s passion and even agrees to help him in his quest to get information, but he does not like extreme behavior and rues the cowardice that motivates his part in Dover’s acts.
Jackman’s performance may be too strong for his or his character’s good. Dover is macho action personified, and Jackman heads for heights of stubbornness, temper, and violence that defy reason. He is a man who claims control of situation he can’t keep in control because of his own anger and impatience. Because he acts so extremely, the audience is ambivalent towards him. Yes, Dover wants to leave no stone unturned in learning his daughter’s whereabouts. Yes, his motives are understandable. The question is whether they justify all Dover does in his mission to save his girl. Audience sympathy skews towards Dover’s side, but sometimes he makes choices that seem untenable even given the life that may be at stake.
Jackman launches into his role with gusto. Like the movie in general, he may go too far in conveying Dover’s obsessions with order and getting a job done. Whereas Howard and Viola Davis, who plays his wife, Nancy Birch, are always natural as they go through their ranges of reaction, Jackman takes matters beyond the realm of nature, even considering the volatile and committed aspects of his character. You see an actor going into high gear rather than a man whose emotions are too immediate and compulsive for him to contain. Jackman gives a performance instead of living a role. His overdoing takes away from the searing reality of what happens in Prisoners. It underscores it as a fictional thriller that the audience is being shown rather than a dilemma it is sharing.
Gyllenhaal enjoys the quirks and individuality of Loki. His performance is consistent and conveys the drudgery of detective work as much as it shows the thought and activity that go into it. Costume designer Renee April helps by dressing Loki in plain white shirts that are buttoned to the top and always look as if they’ve been washed and worn one too many times by someone who gained weight or muscle since he bought them. Loki’s tattoos are also interesting. He has the Zodiac signs on his fingers and a police badge on his neck.
Gyllenhaal, with his slicked back hair and slow, studied style, gives a quiet, competent performance.
The best work in Prisoners comes from Maria Bello, who plays Keller’s wife, Grace Dover. In scenes prior to the girls’ abduction, Bello seems to be in a home movie about a small-town woman and mother spending Thanksgiving with friends. Afterwards, she rings true in every phase of her coping, whether she is trying to remain calm and help the police, attempting to soften Keller’s volcanic rage, or taking to her bed in deep depression. Of all of the parents, Grace is the least involved in searching for her daughter, yet she gives the film’s richest and most genuine performance as a woman who is unsure of what she can do but who grieves severely and sincerely. Because she makes you care about and empathize with Grace, Bello’s is the most moving turn in the film. She is also the actor whose emotional outbursts or breakdowns seen the most real.
Fine work is also turned in by Paul Dano who understands his character’s deficiencies — He is an adult with the IQ of a 10-year-old — and does an admirable job portraying the various aspects of his role. Melissa Leo, as usual, is spot-on as the aunt of a primary suspect in the abduction case. You can see Leo as a hardscrabble Pennsylvania woman who minds her own business and conducts her life as she chooses without causing anyone to comment or notice. David Dastmalchian is steadfastly canny in a small role as a possible suspect.
One cavil: Prisoners is set in Pennsylvania. All of the cars have Pennsylvania license plates and inspection stickers. Art director Paul D. Kelly was careful to include those stickers on every windshield, but either he wasn’t observant enough of he got a bum steer because instead of the stickers being placed side by side as they are in Pennsylvania, they are stacked one above the other, as happens in New York. It’s a small, small detail, one that won’t be noticed outside of Pennsylvania, but I kept wanting to reposition those stickers.