Prisoners (2013) 4/5 (4)


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Rating: The Good – 70
Genre: Thriller
Duration: 153 mins
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis

Flawed but nonetheless intensely atmospheric drama that attempts to rise above the mire of serial killer movies by probing mutually constraining questions of guilt, responsibility, necessity, and revenge. When two girls are kidnapped, one of the fathers (Hugh Jackman) kidnaps the original suspect who he is convinced is the guilty party despite the lead detective’s (Jake Gyllenhaal) assertions he isn’t. As the mystery into the kidnapping throws up more and more barriers to detective Loki’s investigation, Keller Dover subjects his suspect to torturous treatment in the attempt to uncover the girls’ whereabouts. It’s a scintillating premise and the first 60 minutes lives up to its promise thanks to the compelling performances of the two leads and the heavy mood its director Denis Villeneuve establishes from early on. Boasting an immaculate visual profile courtesy of the great Roger Deacons, Prisoners is veritably defined by its dark palette of colours and bleak tonal lighting and combined with the methodical yet artful direction of that opening hour, it sets its stall out as a wholly consuming piece of cinema.

However, just when the story should be consummating this style and premise, it gets bogged down under the weight of its lofty ambitions. The moral conundrum which the bulk of the movie is constructed around ultimately loses cohesion thanks to a ludicrously protracted second act. So, what should’ve been a straightforward dichotomy of moral relativism becomes bloated as Villeneuve leaves and revisits it over and over and the lack of any genuine ethical counterpoint inevitably takes its toll. But it’s not simply a failure to properly tease out its central moralism that scuppers Prisoners. A second issue is the ending. As a twist, it works relatively well but things get a little too caricatured and cliched to the point that it borders on the absurd. However, the most frustrating issue with the film is undoubtedly a gargantuan plot hole concerning the police’s investigation and (without giving anything away) their failure to use scent dogs to do something so fundamental that the case would’ve been solved within the first 24 hours if they did. For a film that runs for two hours beyond that point in the story, it becomes an unforgivable contrivance and sours the entire experience. Yes, there are many interesting curve-balls written into those two hours but, by that point, writer Aaron Guzikowski has lost a critical degree of his audience’s trust. Less gargantuan but still significant are the plot holes surrounding Loki’s failure to connect glaringly overlapping incidents from early on in the film and there’s also an uninspired and overfamiliar antagonism between Loki and his superior that recalls the ‘angry police captain’ of 70/80’s cop movie (a cliche that was lampooned as far back as 1993’s So I Married an Axe Murderer).

All this is a real shame because, in addition to the wonderful aesthetic, Jackman and in particular Gyllenhaal are outstanding. The former got most of the plaudits but it’s the latter’s textured approach to his character that is the more engaging. There’s an interesting back story to his character that suggests an added impetus to do the type of work he does. But because it’s only really alluded to, it’s left to Gyllenhaal to tease it out. He does so admirably. From the idiosyncratic blinking to his general physical and verbal comportment, he layers Loki with intriguing qualities that on their own could drive a film. But as Dover’s side to the story takes precedence and the aforementioned plot holes accrue, that boat sails.

In the end, Prisoners feels like an opportunity missed but with the outstanding performances and that rich atmosphere, there are enough reasons to recommend it. The second half isn’t all bad either. There’s a beautifully shot driving sequence right at the climax that capstones the film’s tension in audacious style and even rivals Pacino’s driving scene from Heat. And while the ending gets a little silly, it’s shot with enough adroit class and clever tension that it can still be enjoyed over a bowl of popcorn.

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