The world would be a better place without trailers. I’m not saying that the trailer for Prisoners (2013) was unduly revelatory, because it was no more ruinous than any other, so I’m #justsayin. The paradox is that the usual place to see trailers is in the theater, so there’s no escape until I become rich or everything starts streaming online in which case the terrorists have won. Trailers set an expectation and the worst of them reveal images or, God forgive them, plot. It’s a common complaint, so I know it isn’t just me who is annoyed by trailers. But there’s another naughty hand at play in the form of critical buzz, in this case from the varied film festivals this season. It’s great when something like Short Term 12 (2013) (review) or In a World… (2013) (review) gets a fair amount of publicity, but Prisoners was studio made and distributed through Warner Brothers. So, when I heard Prisoners was lauded as “real dark” out of Toronto, it made me think the movie was going to be hard, emotional, nuanced, and disturbing. Now, either their wrong or I’ve gone full socio and it can’t be that because I saw Short Term 12 and my face wouldn’t stop leaking.
It’s Thanksgiving in Pennsylvania and the Dover clan is spending it at their friends the Birchs. Keller (Hugh Jackman) is old friends with Franklin (Terrence Howard) and both have two kids of roughly equal ages. Keller is a carpenter raised to have some strong views on survivalism–“be ready” is the rule–and Franklin is a music teacher. As the two youngest are sharing their possessions, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) wants Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) to help find her lost red whistle so they go back to Anna’s house. They were supposed to go with Keller’s older son Ralph (Dylan Minnette), but they didn’t and now, nobody knows where they are. After a quick search, they get the police involved with only one clue: the girls were playing on a dirty RV down the street. Driven police Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) finds that that RV belongs to Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a witless individual who couldn’t plausibly have been able to hide the girls before he was found. But Keller knows that Alex did it and is willing to go to extreme lengths to get to the truth and save his daughter.
Prisoners is a mystery thriller, plain and, I dare say, simple. This is not too artsy for anyone. It might be a little hard to take for some people. As you know from the trailer, Alex is abducted by Keller and interrogated and Keller is not a subtle interrogator. The cinematography from Roger Deakins is probably the most critic-worthy aspect of the film. That’s not derisive. A mystery’s only artistic outlet is in the production while anything in the writing or direction, if emphasized, would pull the film into pure drama. And this is a great thriller, totally engrossing and very well done by director Denis Villeneuve. It’s two and a half hours long and I had no idea. That’s a well written script (Aaron Guzikowski).
That said, what critical acclaim is due to it? I suspect it was the brutality of the interrogation that made those lilly-livered Canadians shudder, but can this be seen as anything other than a genre film? I think not. For a film to be considered transcendent or of the Best Picture variety it has to have some scale either in the outside world (politics, history, etc.) or the inside world (relationships, psychosis, determination, etc.). Genre films make you scared or sad or excited without making you think too long. Abducting an individual on the strength of your gut feeling is not really debatable. Sure, we can say “I understand why…” but that’s not the same thing. Where Prisoners might have gone to give it that kind of gravity is by dwelling on the villain(s) a little more. Because once we can understand their/its motives as much as we understand Keller’s, then thoughts are provoked. And, like I said, though with more emphasis, this is just a mystery.
Some great performances out of the two leads Jackman and Gyllenhaal. Jackman goes out there, man, Best Actor out there. Terrance Howard was surprisingly weak which I’ll put between he and Villeneuve who didn’t really put him in play that much. When Villeneuve wanted to take a little emotional pause, it usually had a window between us and the character instead of sticking the camera right in their eyes to show they’re acting. Jackman’s lucky he could shout and put a hammer through a porcelain sink–best acting Howard did was looking like he crapped his pants in that scene, God knows I would have. The mothers, when given their shot at being distraught or amazed, fit in very well. Good music from Jóhann Jóhannsson.
Would you excavate crime scenes to Radiohead?
If you liked this, you might also like…