Cinematography can’t save mess of a thriller

One of the strangest parts of the fall “prestige” movie season, i.e. the time of year when all of the movies that are trying very hard to win Oscars are released, is seeing where films will attempt to position themselves on the spectrum ranging from the populism of blockbuster entertainment to the more intellectual pleasures of “quality” drama. Prisoners, the new film from director Denis Villeneuve, attempts to fit somewhere in between those two poles. Specifically, the film tries to follow in the footsteps of movies like Seven and Zodiac, crime thrillers that bring a more sophisticated touch to the typically sordid genre. Unlike those films, however, Prisoners is largely unsuccessful, because it fails to blend its two halves, resulting in a film that shifts rapidly between fascinating sequences that explore the violence on screen in depth, and other scenes where violence becomes meaningless noise. Villenueve, who is best known for directing the Oscar-nominated Incendies, seems to have been unable to decide which version of this movie to make, so he simply crammed both into a single feature. As a result, the film is a lengthy, bleak experience, albeit one with occasional flashes of brilliance.

The basic premise of the film is simple: Two children are kidnapped, and the plot follows the two interweaving paths of the men trying to find them. Hugh Jackman plays Keller Dover, the father of one of the girls, who resorts to vigilante methods to try to save his daughter, and Detective Loki, played by Jake Gyllenhaal, who works within the legal system. Besides having some very strange names, these two men basically move through the movie in parallel. Loki’s side of the investigation does an excellent job of portraying the frustration police must struggle with when faced with such a tragedy. Gyllenhaal plays the man as someone constantly fighting to keep his emotions inside, and gives one of his best performances in the role.

Dover, on the other hand, is a man who sees no reason to keep his rage bottled up. He is an exposed nerve, constantly snapping at everyone and everything around him.

Once it becomes clear that the police investigation will not immediately be successful, Dover’s rage manifests in a horrifying manner: He kidnaps the prime suspect in the case and, convinced that this man knows more than he is saying, tortures him. There is quite a lot of torture, in fact. This seems like it should be the central focus of the film. A man, driven by tragic circumstances, does something just as unforgivable as what was done to him. Unfortunately, Dover’s characterization never delves deep enough into his psyche to explain why he was so ready to commit such a monstrous act, or how it impacts him.

Jackman gives a tremendous performance, certainly, but the script is never interested in exploring his motivations. He is given a standard backstory as a man who is “prepared for anything,” and apparently that means both stockpiling canned goods for a hurricane and also torturing someone on a hunch. Some of the film’s best scenes come when we see the parents of the other kidnapped girl, played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, interact with Dover and attempt to figure out how far they’re willing to go to get back their daughter. Unfortunately, the film basically abandons this thread halfway through its running time.

It’s hard to imagine there wasn’t room for that plot thread, considering the movie runs for almost two and a half hours. The last hour in particular is a slog to get through. In this type of thriller, you expect the plot to be full of twists and turns. Here, the plot just slowly trudges forward to its inevitable conclusion. At times, this is effective. The second act of the film, which focuses largely on Loki’s investigation, is marvelously tense, particularly in a sequence involving some locked boxes. But, by the end of the movie, I was less interested in seeing the reveal of the kidnapper’s identity, and more interested in getting out of the theater and escaping the film’s bleak world.

It doesn’t help that the final resolution of the story is disappointingly standard. The villain’s identity isn’t difficult to guess, but more importantly, it’s just a boring conclusion. The final 20 minutes feel like something out of CSI. In those last moments, the film focuses entirely on wrapping up Loki’s side of the story, the police procedural half, and basically abandons the more complex moral ambiguity of Dover’s part of the story. In fact, you could easily cut out most of Dover’s scenes from the film and everything would still make sense. It’s hard to say whether that would improve the movie, but it would make for a standard crime film.

Prisoners feels like it could be so much more. It is beautifully shot, and the two lead performances are excellent, but it is completely lacking in subtlety. This is a movie in which one of the kidnapped girls is named Joy. So yes, joy is literally taken from these parents’ lives. The portions of the story that attempt to do something more than a basic cop story never come together into anything more. Dover is a man who reacts to a monstrous event by becoming a monster himself, but that is presented as a sidestory to the main event—the all-important, and entirely standard, investigation storyline.

Even if this was a much stronger movie, it would be difficult to watch at times. With its brutal scenes of physical torture and emotional distress, but without anything interesting at its core, it is difficult to recommend anyone subject themselves to this film.

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