‘Prisoners’ Overstated and Too Intense

by Sandra Olmsted

In Prisoners, his first Hollywood feature, Canadian director Denis Villeneuve seems to have dumbed down his style since his Oscar nominated Incendies.

As soon as the two little girls disappear, apparently kidnapped by the driver of a mysterious RV, the film promises moral conundrums and seems aimed at mediating religious ambiguity in the face of such loss, the powerlessness of a survivalist to protect his family and the darkness of the past invading the present. Unfortunately, what Villeneuve promises to develop from screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski’s script is either left on the cutting room floor in favor of posturing somewhere between film noir and a overly complex whodunit, or these elements never existed on the script’s pages.

After sharing a Thanksgiving dinner, Keller and Grace Dover (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and Franklin and Nancy Birch (Terrence Howard and Viola Davis) let their daughters, Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimovich) and Eliza Birch (Zoe Soul), go looking for a lost red plastic whistle. The girls disappear and so does the RV which was parked in front of a vacant house on the street. The call goes out to Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), the detective who has solved every case; the RV is quickly found, and its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), apprehended. Despite a brutal interrogation by Loki, Alex, a troubled young man, must be released because there is no evidence in the RV.

Keller, a fundamentalist Christian survivalist, who plans to protect his family from any disaster, has the hardest time coming to terms with not being able to protect his family, his friends, and mostly himself from this disaster. Because he questions and challenges Loki’s management of the case, Keller kidnaps Alex and imprisons him in an abandoned apartment building. Keller draws Franklin and Nancy into torturing Alex by reminding them that their daughter is also running out of food, water, and time and claiming he knows Alex is hiding something. When the audience learns Alex’s secret, it is not on screen, and there is no closure. That’s the problem with Villeneuve’s film, too many plots and too little closure on screen, like the emptiness of a lost child who is never found.

Prisoners populate every part of the film, and the title screams symbolism. Keller is a prisoner of his belief that only he can save his daughter; Nancy is a prisoner of the mediations that she takes for some unexplained mental problem, Franklin and Nancy become prisoners of knowing about the torture of Alex. The girls are imprisoned somewhere, and Loki is imprisoned by an unexplained and unexplored past. But this theme of imprisonment never gets full play, even in the uses of mazes as a symbol and clues. When, at the end of the film, the film ends without the last prisoner being released on screen, the frustration is too much. Is Villeneuve saying that no one can escape the prisons of their own making? Or was he merely unable to pick one theme and fully develop it?

Beautifully shot by cinematographer Roger Deakins and full of tension inducing off-kilter shots, Prisoners is so intense at times that’s it is hard to watch. Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach’s flawlessly smooth editing and Johann Johannsson’s score also amplify the tension by drawing out for as long as possible the most intense moments when the most is at stake. Patrice Vermette’s production design and Renee April’s costume design capture the middle class Pennsylvania world of the characters. The acting is excellent, despite the characters’ dimensions being so underdeveloped.

Jackman channels an Americanness as perfectly as he does a Wolverine, and Howard and Davis embody grieving parents conflicted by the range of emotions and moral challenges facing their characters.

Gyllenhaal, a fine actor, brings a seething, noir Sam Spade to life, but as much as his talent deserves to be acknowledged with more wins than frequent nominations, I don’t think Gyllenhaal found that Oscar worthy role in this one because the role as written is too one dimensional. With almost all the elements need for an exceptional film in place, the real mystery is how Prisoners ended up so average. In the film’s favor, however, it does haunt the viewer with its withholding of on-screen closure for the multiple plot lines.

Prisoners, a Warner Brothers release, is rated R for disturbing violent content including torture, and language throughout  and runs 153 minutes.

(More of Olmsted’s reviews are available at <thecinematicskinny.com>)

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