Year of Release: 2013 Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Starring Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo.
Prisoners is shaping up to be the 2013 entry in the category of “films which everyone else really admires but Evan passionately dislikes.” At least I do not dislike it nearly as much as I dislike last two years’ entries in that category. And I promise to try not to be too snarky, but I cannot make any guarantees when I dislike a film this much.
In the movie’s defense, there are two strong points: there is a late third act plot twist that is kept hidden pretty well, and it does cast a new light on proceedings, even if it also creates other problems. And the best thing about the movie is Roger Deakins’ cinematography, lots of long still takes, which would have worked well with the material to create a tense atmosphere if anything else had worked.
Very early in Prisoners, Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is investigating local child molesters, and he stops by a local Catholic church to question the priest. Loki finds the priest passed out with several empty liquor bottles. He begins investigating and finds a secret basement door. Inside the basement, he finds a man who was beaten to death after being tied to a chair with his mouth duct taped. The priest (an elderly man who walks very slowly and could never have overpowered a younger man) says the dead man came to him in confession and told him that he (the dead man) was at a war with God, and to make people lose their faith, he had kidnapped, molested, and murdered sixteen children, and boasted that he was going to continue doing so. Therefore, the priest decided the only thing he could do without breaking the seal of Confession was to kill the man. Believe it or not, the priest is telling the truth, and the movie ultimately vindicates his actions.
EDIT: After some discussion with friends, I will admit that “vindicates” is too strong a word. “Excuses” or “turns a blind eye to” is a better way to express my opinion of the film’s conclusion.
The priest’s actions are
vindicated excused by Keller, played by Hugh Jackman in a performance so over the top that it reminded me of John Goodman’s “You’re entering a world of pain” tirades from The Big Lebowski. While absurdly over the top performances often work well in comedies, Prisoners is about as far removed from a comedy as possible.
Keller becomes obsessed with Alex (Paul Dano), believing against all odds that Alex kidnapped and is holding his daughter and her friend captive. To extract information Keller sinks to dehumanizing levels of torture that made most of the audience gasp and cringe in shock. I found his tactics so repulsive and alienating that I was hoping he never found his daughter. She didn’t deserve a father as brutal and unethical as that. Even the sadistic Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men was more humane than Jackman’s character.
The third act twist (half of which I predicted within 20 minutes of the opening) makes it quite clear that Keller’s actions were no different than the kidnapper/molester/murderer’s. The villain kidnapped and tortured two six year olds, and Keller kidnapped and came within inches of killing a man with the mentality of an eight year old. However, Keller had good intentions while the villain did not, so as Keller’s wife tells Loki, Keller is a good man who did what he needed to do for his family. As Loki silently nods, it makes logical sense that the murdering vigilante priest is also good man for doing what he needed to do to protect innocent children and atone for his past crimes.
There is one scene when Keller begins the Lord’s Prayer. When he gets to the words, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those…” he stops. It is a nice sentiment, but it is too little too late, and the rationalization which follows undermines the effect that the scene could have had.
Towards the end of the film, Loki thinks he has solved the mystery. But director Dennis Villeneuve still wishes to make the audience squirm. Therefore, Loki- a skilled cop – inadvertently releases a bunch of poisonous snakes that one of the suspects kept only for a ludicrous plot point. That was the point when I officially gave up on the film.
There is an obligatory scene when Loki thinks he has failed, shoves everything off his desk, and then repeatedly smashes his keyboard. At that point, I started laughing. Even though an innocent man has been tortured within inches of death, a man has committed suicide, two girls have been presumably drugged, raped, and murdered, that scene was so extreme I lost it. Then Loki notices a clue in a crime scene photo he had missed; IT IS THE CLUE HE NEEDS. I half expected him to jump up and dance around while the “Hallelujah Chorus” played; it would not have been out of place.
I can imagine why Hugh Jackman and Terrence Howard would agree to do this. The premise had potential, and the movie has a veneer of being a serious thriller. I cannot imagine what possessed Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Viola Davis, and Melissa Leo to be a part of this absurdly over the top, bloodlust mess.
There are a few critics who have observed that Prisoners screams: “Nominate me for an Oscar!” If the academy actually goes for this (and I hope they don’t), hopefully Deakins will be recognized. His work is the only thing in the movie that warrants mention.
Content Advisory: Many intense graphic depictions of torture, themes of child abduction and abuse, disturbing images, drug use, and some harsh language. MPAA rating: R
Suggested Audience: Adults with discernment.
Personal Recommendation: D