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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Review: Prisoners

Overlong, overstuffed, and with the twists and turns of something written by Charlie Kaufman's brother in Adaptation: Prisoners is a gorgeously shot slog that takes a promising premise and shoots it in the foot at an attempt to ratchet up cheaper thrills than its really earned. Did I mention the movie is two and a half hours? It feels every minute of it, with red herring after red herring, and particularly in its second half where all logic goes out the window and it becomes perhaps the most convoluted film of 2013.

Keller Dover (Hugh Jackman) a hard-working (and way too ripped) Carpenter and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) are having a lovely Thanksgiving meal with their friends, Franklin and Nancy (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) when their young daughters vanish after wandering off during festivities. Alex Jones (Paul Dano), an introvert with the IQ of a ten year old, is the prime suspect, but the lead investigator on the case, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) can't find the hard evidence to make any charges stick. Frustrated with the lack of results, Keller decides to take the law into his own hands and kidnaps and brutally interrogates Alex in order to discover the truth, which is more sinister than he could expect.

What I've summarized above is the first half of Prisoners, and frankly, the more effective half. In this evocative first hour, we're given a gorgeously shot tone piece that reflects on questions around suspected guilt and just how far someone would go when an abduction strikes their family. The idea that the father of a kidnapped daughter would he himself break the law and kidnap the prime suspect is an interesting conceit. This is where an audience could be asked very tough questions about how far they individually could go when the justice system conceivably leaves them behind. Unfortunately, the film leaves any illusions of that kind of depth behind when it realizes it needs to provide answers. It's those very answers that lead to the film's ruination.

The second half of Prisoners is filled to the brim with red herrings, rather than one key suspect with a "did he or didn't he?" veneer, we're introduced to another suspect (who looks like a poor man's version of Paul Dano), and then we also find out about a child murderer from 20 years ago that may have ties to the actions of today, there's a bizarre symbol that appears constantly, and you can't shake that feeling there's something about Alex's aunt you can't trust. All this and we have the continual deterioration of Keller. It's all too much, and its thrown at the audience within the hour and twenty minutes remaining. A lot of information isn't a bad necessarily, but meaningless information that just exists to redirect and lead to alot of "sound and fury signifying nothing" simply leaves a viewer exhausted and dissatisfied. The worst part of it all? We're way ahead of the detective who is supposed to be the expert in these matters. The twist is easily predictable, the casting alone screamed it, but you find yourself stuck in your seat plodding along with a film that takes a painful turn into melodrama before the final curtain, with tacked on religious iconography that is utterly meaningless.

The acting is workmanlike, Howard and Davis are fabulous as always, and its regrettable that they weren't the stars of the film. When Davis' Nancy confronts Alex, it's one of the few times Prisoners is able to create any real tension and much of that is due to the lady leading that scene. One day, Viola Davis will have her own leading vehicle, and it will be glorious. Jackman and Bello are more problematic; as the former chews scenery and screams like a mad man at any opportunity, the latter really just doesn't work at all and is eventually sidelined to a pill-popping multi-day nap apparently, to the benefit of the audience. Gyllenhaal gives a more interesting performance, and there's a level of nuance there that I admired, even a sense of menace. Sadly, the character of Detective Loki is written so idiotically that confidence in his ability to do anything effectively strains believability. 

If there's one worthwhile notice in the film though, it's Roger Deakins cinematography, bringing the same sense of palette and tone that he enriched Skyfall and No Country for Old Men with. Every shot is gorgeously crafted, even when the plot mechanisms are falling apart within it. I would have almost preferred a silent version of the movie, at least I wouldn't have been subjected to Jackman's histrionic performance.

Prisoners is half an intriguing movie, and half a procedural mess. The best I can give this is a C.

For better fare in this category starring Jake Gyllenhaal, treat yourself to David Fincher's masterful Zodiac.

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