Monday, September 23, 2013

Prisoners (**1/2)

Directed by Denis Villeneuve


The themes of Prisoners have been done countless times before, but that doesn't mean that an interesting film cannot be made from them. It seems in American cinemas there is nothing more terrifying then the abduction of innocent, American children (Prisoners avoids a rather hefty land mine by making the two abducted children both white and black). It's the ploy usually made by most horror films: the biggest threat you can make is the threat to the American middle-class family. But Prisoners isn't a horror film in its most formulaic sense, though it does use the same tactics to play upon audience emotions and expectations. No, instead Prisoners is played as a straight-forward, uber-serious drama, and while the film is filled with true suspense and a clever eye for the kinds of red herrings that make a movie mystery intriguing instead of obvious, its hard not to feel like Prisoners chose the least interesting way to tell this story, seeming to put more faith in its performances than its screenplay. I'm not sure the gamble pays off.

The film is directed by the French-Canadian filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, best known for his 2010 film Incendies which showed his talent for familial drama and earned an Oscar nomination for Foreign Language Film. This is his first English-speaking film (at the Toronto International Film Festival, he premiered Enemy, his second English film, also starring Jake Gyllenhaal), and the two most obvious comparisons are Clint Eastwood's Mystic River and David Fincher's Zodiac. The script by Aaron Guzikowski (his previous work was 2012's Contraband) mirrors Eastwood's machismo square off at the center of Mystic River: the strong headed officer against the extremely bullish father of the abducted child. But along with Roger Deakins, perhaps the most consistently great cinematographer in Hollywood, Villeneuve makes a film that is impeccably slick, a film's that's very look gives off the dread that ripples throughout the characters, similar to Fincher's film which was a murder mystery shot with the feeling of absolute hopelessness.

But Prisoners isn't anywhere near as good as those two movies. For one, it takes its mystery far too seriously as a plot device, which not only adds to its two-and-a-half hour running time, but also puts pressure for the film to deliver a perfect payoff that it doesn't really provide. The greatest trick of Mystic River is that the story and performances between the heartbroken Sean Penn and the steely Kevin Bacon is so terrific that you don't even care that the solution to the abduction isn't incredibly plausible or satisfying; and Zodiac as well, used the audience expectation of the movie mystery to show that it's not the solving that we enjoy as much as the searching. Prisoners wants to deconstruct its lead characters, using them to represent moral symbols, but we're also trying to sort through the clues of the mystery and the contrast of these two narratives don't flow together as much as Villeneuve would have hoped.

Playing the Sean Penn role here is Hugh Jackman. He plays Keller Dover, a bearded, broad-shouldered hard-ass of a family man who hunts deer for Thanksgiving dinner and doesn't seem to ever talk to his teenage son Ralph (Dylan Minette) without imparting some stern, fatherly wisdom. Keller and his wife, Grace (Maria Bello), decide to take their family down the street for Thanksgiving dinner to the Birch household, where their friends and fellow married couple Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy (Viola Davis) await them. The Dovers and the Birches both have young daughters of comparable ages, around three to four years old, and when those girls ask to play outside after dinner, the parents allow it without much protest. After all, what harm can happen on their own front lawn? But soon after neither girl can be found and night is quickly approaching. Dylan knows that the girls were fascinated by an RV that was parked up the road, which has now vanished. With every second, Grace is filled with hysteria while Keller's emotions wind up into something fierce.

Placed on the case is Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal) - the Kevin Bacon character for this story. Loki is the kind of detective most movies show, eating alone in an empty Chinese restaurant on Thanksgiving, so consumed by work that there is no room left for anything else. Loki is able to intercept the RV that very night, where he finds Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a shaggy-haired young man with a baby face and large-framed glasses. Jones is held by police, but there are no signs of the girls found inside his RV. In fact, it's found that Jones doesn't even have the IQ of a ten-year-old and still lives with his aunt, Holly (Melissa Leo). The case against Alex shrivels up pretty quickly, but Keller is convinced that Alex at least knows who is responsible for the whereabouts of the two girls. Loki does his best to get Keller off Alex's scent, but when Alex is set free by the police, Keller takes the matter into his own hands, kidnapping Alex and punishing him until he gets the answers that he wants.

Thankfully, the screenplay's morals are not nearly as black & white as the film's promotional campaign would lead you to believe, and the film is filled with characters that are revealing without being your standard variety shock stock characters. But the movie spends too much time watching Hugh Jackman channel his inner Pacino circa Devil's Advocate; imagine Penn's Oscar-winning turn in Mystic River if instead he just did the "Is that my daughter in there?" scene for two hours. Jackman used to be an actor of charm and sensitivity, but he's in the midst in a string of roles that focus on his pure masculinity. There are parts in his latest Wolverine movies where his body does big, muscle-y things that the human body shouldn't do, and in Prisoners he tries to channel that physicality into ACTING! but it doesn't ever come off feeling effective. Jackson's Keller Dover is such a brooding, borderline dispicable character, but I don't think Guzikowski's script wanted there to be a borderline, and Jackson seems to always try to provide Dover with some kind of heroism.

On the other hand, Gyllenhaal plays Loki with such icy resonance that it grossly overcomes the hackneyed construction of the character. Gyllenhaal's performance is a reminder of just how good of an actor he can be when placed in the right part. Gyllenhaal was also in Fincher's Zodiac, albeit as an incredibly different kind of character, but both performances showcase an criminological obsession that's difficult to display on the screen the way he does in these two movies. We're told early in the film that Loki has never left a case unsolved, so we know his credentials, but Gyllenhaal's creation here is unlike most of Hollywood's meticulous detectives, tattered with numerous tattoos, a Skrillex haircut and a brimming anxiety that seems to fuel his mission. But with such good actors throughout the rest of the cast, the talents of Howard, Bello and Davis are wasted on pretty meaningless characters that never deliver any surprises.

The casting of recent Oscar winner Melissa Leo is a bit dubious, since it precludes some things that the movie would probably like to keep hidden, but it reveals the movie's taste for movie stars without much thought of giving them parts that are equal to their status. As for Dano, considering his offbeat looks, it's surprising that throughout his career he hasn't played more characters like Alex Jones, and while his ominous, whispery performance in Prisoners is very good, it mostly made me appreciate how Dano has been able to make a career without playing the kind of psychopaths his unorthodox appearance lends itself to. But Prisoners uses its cast to try and vault this film into prestige, even though its a basic Hollywood suspense vehicle. The suggestion was that this film was originally slated for awards contention, but the studio - appropriately, I think - chose it as an beginning-of-Fall alternative to the summer blockbusters. It lead the box office this past weekend with a solid $20 million, and I think that is this film's ceiling: a solid commercial drama. A prestige picture, it is not.

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