What would you do to protect your child? How far would you go?
1It’s a question that most parents have, at one stage, asked themselves – hopefully only theoretically, but nonetheless a serious question. For example, what if kidnappers came into your home and took your child while you were out, and you got home in time to catch one of them, but not before the others escaped... with your child. What if you called the police and they were unable to extract a confession from the guy you caught, and he was subsequently released on bail? What if you knew where he lived, and knew that every hour your child was missing was an hour closer to her being gone for good? Now, skipping a few steps, what if you found yourself in a room with the guy you knew had been involved in the kidnapping of your child, and he was not prepared to tell you where your child was. How far would you be prepared to go to make him talk?
Prisoners takes you to this morally ambiguous place.
The Dovers are a young family who are having Thanksgiving at their friends’ house, the Birches, who live just up the street. Both young families have teenage elder children – a boy and a girl, respectively – and a younger girl each as well. They don’t let the youngsters go anywhere without their elder siblings. But the two girls ignore this rule, go out, and never come back. Keller Dover is the man of the house, but his house is falling apart, and he will do whatever it takes to get his daughter back.
Detective Loki has never failed to close a case. When he opens the file on the missing Dover and Birch kids, however, he has no idea what he is getting himself into. He’s the first to pick up a prime suspect – a young man of potentially limited mental capacity who was seen in his camper van parked down the road from the house – but, with no evidence, he’s forced to let the kid go. But does the man know something? Keller Dover certainly thinks so...
Prisoners is a bleak and unforgiving movie which definitely succeeds in what it sets out to do – get right under your skin. It’s honest, at times painfully realistic, and plays relentlessly with your emotions. Almost every character painted is flawed, and almost every suspect is painted ambiguously – there are no clear-cut heroes and villains here, just one big grey area. It’s also set in a suitably grey area, the sheets of rain reduce visibility, the icy cold sets in, and the lifeless greens and browns that dominate the surroundings smother any spark of colour. It’s a dreary setting to match the mood.Nobody wants to get lost in these woods.
With atmosphere and content locked-and-loaded, Prisoners seems primed to take you on a torturous psychological journey. “They’re all prisoners” is what I expected to learn; not just the missing girls, presumed dead; but everybody she left behind – prisoners unable to break free of the stranglehold that their disappearance has put upon them. Even the suspects appear to be prisoners themselves, in one way or another, and the cop is certainly shackled by the 100% solve rate that he’s established; by his dedication to the cause.
Bleak and unforviging
Certainly there are nods towards this. Generally, through, Prisoners excels in but fits and starts, impressively building up the tension, and – even more impressively – maintaining that horrible moral grey area for almost the entire duration, but failing to deliver the necessary one-two punch on the initial questions. At its heights, we have the sense of dread when the girls first go missing; the building menace when the detective spots a suspect; a couple of tense trips to the darker recesses of various houses; and a few fantastic confrontations, most of which – unusually – require no firearms to keep you on the edge of your seat. The hurtling-through-the-rain drive is superb, and, at the other end of the spectrum, the explosive dramatic moments where the father, Keller Dover, simply goes apoplectic – Prisoners shines, just not consistently. Which would be forgiven, but for a few tail-end contrivances which nip at you, and which leave you feeling that it’s a good film – maybe even borderline very good – but that it’s not a great film.
Canadian Director Denis Villeneuve has made a name for himself with a trio of powerful, Award-winning, French-language dramas, the last of which –Incendies – was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2011.Prisoners marks not only his Hollywood debut; not only his first English-language production, but also the first film he’s directed but not written. Perhaps this is a reason behind the failings of the film, for, whilst Villeneuve has a distinctive eye for brooding threat and palpable menace – his camera oftentimes edging slowly in on the back of a character’s head – and for capturing the seedy, oppressive dark side of society, Prisoners does not quite have the same power as viewers might have come to expect from him. Indeed, at times, it feels like the filmmakers have confused power with sheer length, with the punishing feature clocking in at over two-and-a-half hours in length.
Although, for the most part, the narrative is compelling – if not outright gripping – the many final act twists and turns threaten to extinguish any remaining patience you may have with the piece; worthy performances and a strong premise are simply not enough once you clear the two hour mark and realise that there’s quite a lot more story development (and revelation) to come. It’s certainly at this point where the filmmakers look like they have lost control of their beast, although Villeneuve probably reins things in enough to provide a fitting finale, even if some earlier twists feel both contrived and unnecessary.
There are no such doubts about the performances of the cast. They are, in their entirety, excellent. Hugh Jackman gives one of his best performances. Perhaps that’s not saying much, but he’s a far cry from Wolverine here, playing a character who you’ll find it very hard to get behind: despite the supposedly righteous end, his means are veritably hard to justify. It’s a credit to the talent of both him and the filmmakers that they manage to leave you doubting his actions throughout: you want him to get caught because he might have got the wrong guy, but you also want him to keep going in case he got the right guy (there are hints of Zero Dark Thirty in this mix). Terrence Howard is surprisingly restrained – in a good way – as the fellow friend and neighbour, who also lost a daughter; and both Maria Bello and Viola Davis are on great form as the respective wives/mothers, Bello in particular put through the ringer as she drowns herself in a sea of tears and tablets.
Paul Dano has made a name for himself playing creepy ‘special’ young men; he just looks the part – from Looper to Little Miss Sunshine; from Ruby Sparks to Knight and Day, and perhaps most obviously, his convincing scumbag pastor in the stunning character study, There Will Be Blood, where he single-handedly makes you root for the Daniel Day-Lewis’s power-hungry anti-hero. Here he’s an obvious choice for the prime suspect, even when the equally creepy – think evil Robert Pattinson – David Dastmalchian (one of The Joker’s psychotic henchmen in The Dark Knight) turns up on the scene. Still, perhaps that’s the point – despite them both looking overly suspicious, there’s enough doubt to make you question the characters’ actions.
One person you’ll get behind from start to finish is Jake Gyllenhaal’s dogged Detective. It’s perhaps my favourite performance from Gyllenhaal, who has an almost unbroken string of strong titles to his name – Brokeback, Jarhead, Proof, Zodiac, Rendition, Brothers, Source Code and End of Watch – with only really Prince of Persia and Love & Other Drugs sticking out as vacuous fillers. Here, however, he bests pretty much all of those, bringing us a twitching, blinking, tattoed, beleaguered Detective who is far from the kind of super-cop that is called for in most of these kinds of mysteries. He doesn’t wantonly flaunt the rules, but he also behaves very naturally and convincingly throughout – particularly when he’s confronted with some positively evil scumbags. He’s tortured by the family’s loss, and visibly wears the burden of the case in every scene. It may not be a powerful film but it’s still suitably unsettling; and his may not be a powerhouse performance, but it is still a driven, complex and captivatingly understated one.
Great performances and skilled direction – however important – are only two elements of a bigger picture, and ultimately it’s the story that still hampers the proceedings. Whilst it takes time to build its characters, and time to plot out the complications which arise during the (witch)hunt, the moral ambiguity of it all is understandably harder to resolve in a satisfactory fashion. Few films of this subject-matter accomplish it – Affleck’s excellent directorial debut, the criminally underrated Gone Baby Gone, did, but it’s the exception to the rule.
Credit should go to the filmmakers for not choosing an easy option out, but this is almost undermined by fashioning a somewhat contrived outcome instead. And all those telling questions about how far you would go; about what you would do to save your child? Well, they remain ambiguously unresolved too, lost in the mire of torture and blood and pain. Prisoners may not be able to help you with answers, but it does carry one haunting message for every parent out there; one which no parent will ever actually be able to comply with: never let your child out of your sight.
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