Sunday, 29 September 2013

Film Review: Prisoners (2013)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Stars: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis and Paul Dano

Prisoners clocks in at 153 minutes and for the first two hours the film is a superior thriller and drama, well worth the time we have invested in the story thus far. Towards the end of the film there is a plot development which not only derails the film from there on, leading the film to end on the flattest of notes, but it also sends ripples through the previous two hours. Unlike the great mystery thriller films, Prisoners doesn’t leave us thinking how ingenious the film was to keep the big reveal hidden until the end, but rather reveals itself to be little more than a whodunit, albeit a beautifully shot one at that.

One can’t help but feel cheated by the conclusion of this film, for it hints and suggests at being so much more than it actually delivers. The film open with Keller (Hugh Jackman) reciting the Lord’s Prayer which suggest to us Keller is a religious man, as does the crucifix hanging from his rearview mirror, as does the community he lives in which holds vigils later in the film. He says at one point that he hasn’t touched drink in nine years, and his wife when grieving blames him for the daughter’s disappearance, saying he promised he would protect the family. All of these clues and more hint that something has happened in Keller’s past to lead him to be the man he is when the film begins and this backstory, we hope, will come into play later as the parallels he faces from kidnapping the supposed kidnapper (Paul Dano) and resorting to violence, that most un-holy of acts toward your fellow man, drive the film forward. Sadly, none of this comes to anything other than a showcase of scene for some excellent acting and cinematography for Keller has no backstory, nor does his character have any real arc to speak of after the first act is over.

Keller chains the kidnap suspect, an man with ‘an IQ of a 10 year old’, to a sink in an abandoned apartment building and beats him until his eyes have swelled shut and, despite knowing he may never get the answers he wants, he persists with the torture. The film, however, doesn’t use this plot development for anything other than a ‘red herring’ and it is rendered totally disposable when the story decides it needs to move on to the next twist. What are the effects on Keller? How can he turn to extreme violence so quickly on a man who, despite his looks and appearance, has no evidence against him? What happens to a man when he must accept he has crossed a line of no return? How does this kidnap and torture affect Franklin and Nancy and how will it affect their family stability if they get their daughters back alive? Their fathers may have killed an innocent man to aid their safe return.

Also linked into the story is Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), who questioned and subsequently released the suspect and now leads the investigation to get the girls back. What is his story? Why the tattoos on his neck and hands? Why the distant, haunted look on his face at all time? Has he seen this type of case before? None of the characters in the film have any depth to support the fantastic acting the cast bring, which is fine if you’re watching Kiss The Girls or Along Came A Spider because films such as those are packaged and designed to be everything Prisoners should never have ended up becoming. A better film would have far more weight and emphasis on the duality between kidnappings and the effect this has on the two husbands, Keller’s wife not knowing, and the dynamics between Keller and Loki, and not lead us to the ridiculous ending and wasted opportunity we subsequently get.

The film is not without it merits, and these should be praised. The film allows Hugh Jackman to give what is easily his best performance to date (and we can only wonder why he’s wasted time on CGI-heavy productions when he has so much more to offer) and is surrounded by excellent performances throughout although Viola Davis is criminally underused. Director Denis Villeneuve has made a mature, dark, and at time unsettling film for the first two hours and even when the film derails the direction is still of a high standard and he rarely falls back on any genre clich├ęs or tropes and cannot be criticised for the film’s failings other than its needlessly long running time. Legendary Director of Photography Roger Deakins produces yet another master class in lighting in his long list of master classes; the shadows and darkened areas of rooms combined with the pale skins tones and dull interiors gives Prisoners a tone which does a lot more to create a sense of character than the script ever does. Deakins work here is deserved of a better screenplay but he yet again shows why he is one of the best at what he does.

Stop thinking for yourself verdict: It feels disheartening to speak of such disappointment with the final thoughts on Prisoners because there is a lot to recommend in terms of visuals and acting, but they cannot hide the fact that the film is a missed opportunity at genuine greatness and for a while it feels like the film is destined to be one of the year’s best film. If only the story developed into something more challenging and thought-provoking, we could have been looking back on Prisoners as a go-to model for a modern, adult thriller rather than the slightly above average film we ultimately got.

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