Here there be spoilers
Acclaimed Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve’s first American film, Prisoners is a lumpy concoction that betrays the difficulties of trying to blend serious ethical drama with popular thriller canards. Hugh Jackman is Keller Dover, a deer-shooting carpenter and survivalist nut, who loves his Springsteen and The Star Spangled Banner. The film does everything but give him a DVD collection of John Wayne movies and a George W. Bush bumper sticker to underline his status the exemplary Middle American blue-collar white male with all the attendant faiths. Even his name sounds like a craft beer. During a bleak and slushy winter, it’s hard times, man, and about to get harder. When Keller and his wife Grace (Maria Bello) visit their friends and neighbours, Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis), their young daughter, Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) vanishes, along with the Birchs’ girl Eliza (Zoe Soul Borde). Fearing abduction, the police are called. The best suspect on hand is Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a walking placard of cliché perp traits, including Winnebago, molester glasses, sing-songy voice, and mental age of 10. If he appeared near a school he’d start a panic comparable to the beachgoers at the sight of the fin in Jaws (1975) Investigating Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) interviews Alex, but his obvious lacks, plus the absence of physical evidence in his van, forces the police to release him. Keller, infuriated, assaults Alex in the police station parking lot, and hears him murmur a phrase that suggests he does know something. Convinced that Alex was taunting him and that under Alex’s dimwit exterior is a malicious mastermind, Keller kidnaps him and holds him prisoner in a dilapidated house, engaging in increasingly brutal and sadistic torture to extricate the truth.
The broadness and clunkiness of Aaron Guzikowski’s script in setting up the characters and their disparate worldviews grazes awkwardly against the admirable, almost suffocating mood of bleak, blear circumstances and wearying physical and emotional climes Villeneuve and DOP Roger Deakins labour to create. The suspicion that Prisoners is pulp being played as high art is stoked early on, and later proves entirely justified, although the film’s intense middle third muddies the issue. To the film’s credit, it uses conventions to set up an interesting quandary. Casting Jackman seems to consciously rely on associations with his potency as Wolverine in the X-Men movies, a move at once corny and clever, as the film becomes a study in archly macho postures and certitudes buckling under the weight of accumulated contradictions and wounds. John Wayne comparisons aren’t so inapt, as, like Wayne’s characters in Red River (1948) and The Searchers (1956), Keller is both physically powerful and utterly convinced of his own authority and responsibility as embodiment of manly virtues, but stricken with neurotic, almost pathological need to cover his actual weakness and insecurity. Keller’s background is intriguingly suggested if left frustratingly unexplored, as the son of a law enforcer who killed himself, and so Keller is driven to ever more hyperbolic ends to prove himself bulwark against chaos. Loki, his foil and rival, has his own driving demons, as an orphan with a history of abuse and suffering in care. But Loki holds fast to the role of cop whilst Keller becomes vigilante and lost soul.
Villeneuve’s previous film was a study in lingering effects of history, war, and terrorism, Incendies (2011), and it’s hard to suppress the feeling that Prisoners is intended on at least one level as a kind of political parable, a suburban recasting of Zero Dark Thirty (2012). This makes Keller as embodiment of the spirit of angry plebeian vengeance unleashed by War on Terror polity, creating a little Guantanamo in his quest for justice, a recourse that proves mostly hideous and only gains results in an unexpected manner, whilst Loki holds fast to the ethic of the law enforcer and gets to the same place without destroying himself and others. The story doesn’t need such dimensions, of course, as it ought to be just as fascinating enough on an everyday level. Particularly interesting is the role of the Birchs, who become involved as first Keller gets Franklin to help him pinion and beat Alex. Nancy eventually susses out what’s going on but agrees, shamefacedly but with what she sees as reasoned acquiescence, to let them continue in case they learn something. There’s a keen sense here of the sorts of guilty, desperate decisions ordinary people make in handing over power to do awful things to strongmen in the name of necessity and the need to feel evil is being combated. Davis is excellent here, as is Howard in playing a meek, intelligent but easily manipulated man. The torture scenes, indeed, come across a little like Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton gone Saw. But it is readily conceivable that Prisoners would have been much better if Howard and Davis' befuddled couple were the focal point of this primal drama, or if at least a less clichéd avatar for parental angst than Keller had been chosen as the key figure to be pushed to such extremes.
Deakins’ photography, alternately earthy and abstract, offers chilly, cheerless visions of a satellite town on the fringe, lined by Grimm woods and littered with signs of depleted prosperity, and occasional passages of impressionistic colour and light, particularly in a well-done final dash through crowded traffic Loki makes to save a life, as he struggles with a gunshot wound, the world almost dissolving into infernal blotches of red. Villeneuve’s sense of staging is likewise strong as the families’ homes are invaded by a mysterious intruder, and Loki chases him in the dark. Gyllenhaal, as he often is, proves the sneaky trump card, putting across both Loki’s assailed righteousness and twitchy, suggestive neurosis, and giving depth to a character much less obvious than Jackman’s. Loki is first glimpsed in a rather pathetic situation, eating Thanksgiving dinner alone in a diner, a hint that he definitely inhabits the same exposed, alienated sense of the world and hunting grounds, as do the killers he stalks, and some of their thought patterns too. Like several other characters in the film, he’s the product of heinous childhood experiences, which he takes out happily on a priest (Len Cariou) who almost literally has skeletons in the closet. But in a thematic parallel that evokes Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949), cop, criminal, and man in between all share turning points in their lives: only key decisions separate them.
Like Derek Cianfrance’s The Place Beyond the Pines from earlier in the year, Villeneuve’s film is preoccupied with both critiquing and revelling in American masculine angst, through plays of power and castration, and shares a similar setting and sense of a corroding society on the edge of the forest, a modern United States that’s rejected its once-triumphant futurist vision and now is on the verge of returning to the wilds of Fenimore Cooper. But as with Cianfrance’s film, the provocations and preoccupations feel adolescent, a studied mimicry of grown-up emotion and art. There’s also a distinct sense of continuum from Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River (2003), with which it shares not just major plot elements and thematic values, but also a fondness for revelling in the showy acting of its heavyweight male star in the course of supposedly interrogating his character’s self-perception as the moral lynchpin of the universe. Sadly, Prisoners finally swaps the beauties of its middle third for a steady spiral into a familiar, and increasingly silly, serial killer hunt that mimics dozens more similar movies that came before it. Villeneuve and Guzikowski cop out of their essential thesis, in favour of a whole lot of crap involving a vigilante priest, a body in a cellar, a local weirdo with a snake collection, clues involving mazes and wars against God, and Alex’s cautiously hospitable aunt (Melissa Leo), whose cardigans and pharmacy glasses suggest layers of repressed and calcified emotion.
I wouldn’t say I wanted the film to become L’Avventura (1960), but the film eventually degenerates into unnecessary, ridiculous bluffs and red herrings on the course to turning up the villain and rescuing the girls, in a fashion that’s infinitely less gripping and wrenching than watching ordinary men destroy themselves through desperate cruelty. The structuring is odd, leaving characters and plot strands in abeyance for long stretches of time, apparent for example as Guzikowski conveniently has Grace lie bombed out with meds for several days, so the story can play out neatly, and with implications for the Dovers’ relationship that exacerbate the feeling they’ve stumbled in from the 1950s. Even more problematic are the film’s awkward attempts to both condemn Keller’s actions but also give him a salve, for his suspicions do prove partly correct, just not in the fashion he expects. It’s as if, when push came to shove, the film was scared of offending its audience too much in pointedly contradicting the faith in quasi-fascistic brute-force solutions and stern paternal wisdom much violent genre fare propagates, with films like Man on Fire (2004) and Taken (2009). The climactic scenes do send Keller through his own ordeal, reminiscent of The Vanishing (1988), but by the finale and that powerfully staged driving sequence mentioned above, so much credibility has been lost and seriousness spurned, that Prisoners ends up feeling like wasted time. Which is a pity because, for about the first 90 minutes, it isn’t.