Film Review: Prisoners
There is nothing worse in reviewing than watching a film that seems like it should be fantastic in every way and being bitterly disappointed. Sadly, that’s the only word I could think of after sitting through the long haul that is Prisoners. Featuring a top notch cast (Oscars nominees Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Terrence Howard and Oscar winner Melissa Leo), an interestingly morbid story (how far would you go to find your missing daughter?) and cinematography by the superlative Roger Deakins, how could French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve mess this up?
Most of the blame lies at the heart of the story, which could make an interesting 90 minute thriller, but instead becomes a drawn out bore at two and a half hours. All American Christian father Keller Dover (Jackman, giving a decent if unsubtle portrayal of a desperate man) is driven to the depths of hell as his daughter is kidnapped, along with the daughter of neighbour Franklin (a completely underused Howard). Blaming a local oddball with the mental age of ten (Paul Dano, playing another unlucky, brutalised weirdo), Franklin takes matters into his own hands to get his daughter back, against the wishes of the twitching Detective Loki (the admittedly very good Gyllenhaal). Along the way, there are copycats, extreme religions, horribly graphic violence and innumerable clichés.
Set in a city that constantly rains, and mostly taking place in dingy, dreary houses, Prisoners is certainly one of the most depressing films of the year. Loki comes across as the only truly decent man, and even that slowly fades out of the view as the film continues, leaving us with Jackman, who clearly struggles to make Keller any kind of moral compass; I found myself losing a lot of sympathy and patience with him after the first ninety minutes.
Strangely though, for a film that, at least for the first third, seems to be aiming for realism and slow burn, Prisoners is utterly ridiculous. Very few events that take place ring true after the first hour, and Villeneuve doesn’t make it clear what film he’s making. Does he want to make a serious, realistic drama about losing a child? Does he want to make a graphic, torturing revenge film? Does he want to make a red herring strewn cop thriller? The answer is all and none; by trying to cram in so many different elements, the film is messy and jumbled, never quite knowing what to do with itself.
This is most apparent in the final act, which drops any sense of logic and realism to become an absolutely ludicrous, practically Hitchcockian thriller. The twist reveal, which I promise not to spoil, is plain dumb, and most of the interesting points of the film are forgotten about to give us clichés. In fact, have fun by counting the various clichés along the way; a major clue being found whilst dropping evidence; a man “acting suspiciously” before running on foot from hundreds of witnesses at a town gathering; the villain suddenly appearing behind a major character with a gun, revealing the truth; and of course, that ending. Yes, the predictable, lame ending that ties up the film in an unsatisfying, uninteresting way. Rather than raise questions about redemption, forgiveness, and suffering, Villeneuve gives up and gives you exactly what he thinks you want (but most definitely don’t).
Thankfully, there are a few saving graces that make Prisoners at least quite watchable, if not particularly good. The cinematography by the ten times Oscar nominated Roger Deakins is some of the finest you’ll see in film this year; slow glides of the camera tracing the neighbourhood for missing girls, the infinite abyss of the snowy town, and, in one jaw droppingly beautiful scene, dozens of flashlights lighting up the dark forest where the girls may lie. It’s easily deserving of another Oscar nomination, and hopefully, a first time win.
In terms of acting, nobody is particularly bad. Gyllenhaal, who for my money is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, is really quite likeable for the most part as the hard working professional, trying to stay cool while others go off the rails. Jackman, meanwhile, isn’t all bad, being pretty emotional and intense in the first and third acts. The same goes for Terrence Howard, barely used but really sympathetic when he is. In fact, pretty much everything about the film is good in the first act, which looks good, features many intriguing scenes and has everyone giving pretty good performances. All I will say is this; when the film reaches the dog walking scene, that’s when the creeping sense of disappointment begins to set in. That occurs less than an hour into the film.
Prisoners isn’t the worst film of the year, nor is it the most disappointing; it’s just a frustratingly ordinary tale that could have been interesting had it stuck to its dark, intense emotional drama. Instead, it becomes a fairly hateful torture film and a silly thriller. There’s some solid acting going on, and the cinematography is some of the best of the year, but at two and a half hours, Prisoners is a long, depressing slog, with an unsatisfying resolution. If it had been a low budget, 90 minute revenge thriller starring unknowns, Prisoners could have been an interesting find. As a big budget, all star drama, Prisoners just isn’t quite worth the time and effort. File it under interesting, but frustrating.
By Harry Ford