“Prisoners” – Squinting in the Face of Evil

Prisoners

Prisoners (Denis Villeneuve, 2013)

At the end of the preview screening I attended for Prisoners, a young woman stood up in front of me and loudly declared, “Worst. Ending. Ever.” Well, yeah, sure, if you were expecting a nice, tidy and uplifting wrap-up to a sordid tale of kidnapping and torture, it was a pretty lame conclusion. Open-endedness has never been a popular Hollywood staple. But let me ask you this, young lady: where were you for the previous 150 minutes? At a different screening? Because there is very little about Prisoners that is neat and tidy: not the story, not the filmmaking, not the performances. It’s a messy film, which is both the source of its strength and its weakness. At times engaging, at times frightening, at times incredibly frustrating, Prisoners rewards the viewer looking for a different kind of thriller. It has the mood and palette of a Winter’s Bone, but the pacing of a certain kind of Michael Haneke film (Caché or The White Ribbon). May you be so fortunate as to see it with an audience that has not mistaken it for a raucous comedy of errors (I mean, who laughs at torture scenes, really?).

Prisoners was directed by the French Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, whose previous film, Incendies, was nominated for an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011. Equally as cinematically ambitious – though on a more global topic – that movie had a tighter narrative structure (and a slightly shorter running time), and a tidier conclusion. It was also more logically consistent in its approach to its subject – a parable about the conflicts in the Middle East – and, as a result, it was a more satisfying viewing experience than is Prisoners. It’s nice to see Villeneuve refusing to rest on his laurels, however, and taking on a challenging story set and filmed outside of his home country.

The story at the heart of this new film is both incredibly simple and deeply complex. Two young girls disappear on Thanksgiving, launching a desperate search by their families and the local police. The former are led by the father of one of the girls, Keller (Hugh Jackman), a tough bear of a man whom we have earlier seen teaching his son to hunt with a rifle, while the latter have Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) – far more dour than his name would suggest – a detective who has never not solved a case. The only clue at hand is an old camper around which the two girls were last seen playing. If the searchers can just find the vehicle, they assume, they’ll find the girls . . . hopefully alive.

Unfortunately for them, the girls, and especially the young man behind the wheel of that camper – played powerfully by Paul Dano – the reality proves to be a lot more complicated. As the rains (and later, snows) of Pennsylvania (the film was shot in Georgia) soak the screen, Loki tracks down every clue he can while an enraged Keller releases his own demons in a misguided vigilante pursuit of the truth. The two men clash over methods and the limits of the law, Keller starts drinking again, and we, the audience, watch supposedly good people behave atrociously and supposedly bad people suffer. At the end, that ambiguity turns out to have been at the heart of the director’s intentions. Who and what are good, and who and what are evil, and do we not all have elements of both within us?

I am all for this kind of filmmaking, since art that asks these kinds of questions can force us to confront the deep issues in life (one of my favorite films is Hiroshima, mon amour). However, I am also in favor of storytelling coherence, and Prisoners begins to lose its way after about 60 minutes. It weaves in and out of finding its path again, but there are far too many narrative digressions – most centered on graphic depictions of torture – that were, in my opinion, far more gratuitous than necessary. Cut 45 minutes out of the film, and this could be a masterpiece.

On the performance side, Hugh Jackman is – as he most often is – quite strong, as are supporting players Viola Davis (has this woman ever given a bad performance?), Terrence Howard, Maria Bello, the aforementioned Paul Dano and Melissa Leo. And though I enjoyed much about Jake Gyllenhaal, I found his own performance at times as distracting as the torture. Why, for instance, does he squint throughout the movie? Is he nearsighted? Is he just tired? Has Villeneuve directed him to indicate his internal emotions in this way? Did Gyllenhaal come up with this on his own? Whatever the reason, it’s indicative of the bloat that weighs the story down. It serves no obvious purpose but to distract from the very real strengths within.

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