Hearts of Darkness
Review of Prisoners (2013)
by Adam Tawfik
At the turn of the twentieth century, a group of entrepreneurial men and women ingeniously concocted a simple but effective formula that have kept motion pictures as one of the more entertaining diversions for over 100 years. In film’s illustrious history, a vast majority of the products are imminently forgettable seconds after consumption. Every few years there’s one film that goes beyond rousing entertainment and worms its way into your psyche for its haunting provocativeness. In 2010, that film was Incendies, written and directed by French-Canadian Denis Villeneuve, a gut-wrenching account of a modern civil war.
While (unfortunately) it lost the Best Foreign Film Oscar to an inferior In a Better World, it put Villeneuve on Hollywood’s radar. In many cases, a Hollywood career tends to rob distinctive directors of their unique voice. While Prisoners, Villenvue’s debut Hollywood film is not standard assembly-line work it lacks the nuance, intelligence, and humanity of his prior Oscar-nominated effort.
His direction and the screenplay by Aaron Guzikowski are ambitious and clearly aimed for sophisticated audiences, even if its basic premise seems to resemble an action flick; on Thanksgiving, the youngest daughters of two friends the Dovers (Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello) and the Birches (Terence Howard and Viola Davis) are kidnapped and Keller Dover sets out to rescue them, often resorting to vigilante tactics. But there’s not enough substance in terms of twists and turns or character developments to justify its 153 minute running time.
Firstly, it’s a structural mess. From the first act where Jackman and son are killing the deer, and we see Jackman’s (the Dovers) and Howard’s (the Birches) families enjoying Thanksgiving for about twenty minutes before the kidnapping of their two youngest daughters, it is apparent that this film is going to be overlong. The second act drags because it spends too much time focusing on Keller’s sadistic torturing of Alex Jones (Paul Dano), a retarded man whom Keller thinks is the kidnapper.
Many critics hail Hugh Jackman’s performance in Prisoners as his best. While he certainly has some stellar microcosmic moments – his delivery of the line “the moment he took our son he stopped being a human being” or his breakdown in the car when he’s yelling at Gyllenhaal about how it’s on him to find his daughter- he’s basically playing Wolverine again (complete with the rugged beard and animalistic rage) minus the supernatural powers and the CGI blades.
Guzikowski deserves part of the blame as the character as written is a one-note volatile lunatic from the opening scene. It’s impossible to have much empathy with him and as a result we’re not as invested in his plight, giving the overall film a repetitive tediousness.
The character of Det. Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) is too elusive for two thirds of the film, only making an impact in the final act. Gyllenhaal emerges as the best in show as he gets ample opportunity to emote the emotional weight of his inability to solve the case and haunted by the memory of the girls still missing. This gets undermined in the last few minutes by the script’s tendency to wrap things up too neatly and to grab at straws for plausibility.
As this is essentially a two-person drama, everyone else in the very talented ensemble is relegated to the background. Viola Davis and Terence Howard act with professional dignity but they are stuck with characters who are limited to protesting Jackman’s sadistic methods but not stopping them.
Maria Bello does some harrowing grieving, but she doesn’t get a chance to do anything more. Paul Dano is reduced to whimpering and screaming, mostly in a box as a tortured victim to Jackman’s wrath. Melissa Leo as Dano’s aunt nicely underplays her part in earlier segments, but her role veers towards the outlandish as the film progresses, especially in her final scenes.
The technical side isn’t much better. Roger Deakens, one of the more distinctive working cinematographers, delivers surprisingly uninspired work, casting the film with a monosyllabic shade of grey. The editing by Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach is sloppy. I particularly found that the long fade to blacks glaringly emphasized the film’s disjointedness.
A lot of the narrative conventions are recycled from Incendies, none of which here are as good as in the former film. We have two protagonists, Det. Loki and Keller, but neither is well defined enough as a character, so shifting between the two is usually more jarring than interesting.
Another thing borrowed is a certain object that becomes important for revealing the twist in the story, but sadly like everything else, it’s too singular. It’s such an obvious motif that I was surprised that Det. Loki didn’t figure it out sooner.
Prisoners is a harrowing journey that has moments of quality, but for a cinematic experience that leaves you with total emotional and intellectual shell shock, watch Incendies.