Director: Denis Villeneuve
Unless you’re Quentin Tarantino, you can’t make B-movies and expect to be taken seriously. You can’t just take a potentially-troubling set up and then throw in ridiculous twists and hammy acting. That’d just be silly. It’d be even sillier still to play it all straight, whilst masquerading as a morality tale about the nature of guilt and the limits of vigilantism. Surely any sensible screenwriter would see that this setup would be crippled by its own jarring tonal shifts and suffocating twists. Despite all this, Prisoners exists.
Prisoners is unquestionably silly but, with an acclaimed director and decent cast in tow, it appears deaf to any criticisms that may come its way. That false confidence wouldn’t be entirely misplaced, as Prisoners starts off promisingly. Anna (Erin Gerasimovich) and Joy (Kyla Drew Simmons) are abducted whilst their parents and older siblings celebrate Thanksgiving. The continuous shots of grey skies threatening rain and snow are an unsubtle metaphor for events to come (even if they are courtesy of cinematographic deity Roger Deakins). English scholars call this device ‘pathetic fallacy’. Keep those words in mind should you deign to watch Prisoners; you may find yourself grasping for such synonyms later.
The hunt begins with the girls’ fathers, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Franklin (Terrence Howard) searching around their neighbourhood. The police arrives in the form of Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) and tension builds nicely. However, Anna’s brother (Dylan) notes a decrepit RV travelling around the local streets, and this is the point at which Prisoners starts to lose its way. The driver of the RV is Alex (Paul Dano), who has greasy hair, paedo standard issue big-eye glasses and the mental capacity of a 10-year-old. His mental afflictions rule him out as a suspect, but Keller is sure this is the man who took the girls. In the opening scenes, it was established that Keller is a survivalist (He keeps his cellar full of food, bottled water and guns for a very rainy day), but that’s no excuse for the severe lapse in sense and logic he’s about to undergo.
Director Denis Villeneuve brings a certain non-Hollywood gravitas with him in coming to this project; his previous film, the Oscar-nominated Incendies, established him as a director with a flair for both visuals and character. Try as he might, there is no escaping the feeling that he and this material are mismatched. One can imagine Villeneuve reading the first 30-odd pages of the script, signing on the dotted line to direct, and then returning to read the rest of the screenplay and potentially regretting his decision. If that’s the case, he probably stopped reading when Alex is released to his aunt (Melissa Leo), at which point Keller takes the law into his own hands.
Keller kidnaps Alex, and holds him hostage in an abandoned property he owns, hoping to beat/intimidate a confession out of Alex. This could be a shocking conceit if only there was much, if any, indication Keller was conflicted about doing so. There are genuinely tense moments, but these serve to wash away any possibility of moral upset. Keller’s actions transcend common sense. The conceit of abducting the (possible) abductor is interesting, but the violence involved reduces it to another B-movie trope shooting above its pay grade. The explanation for Franklin’s or his wife Nancy’s (Viola Davis) decision to overlook Keller’s actions is either parental grief (natch) or a lack of characterisation (just as likely). Maria Bello gets a worse deal from the script as Keller’s wife Grace, who spends most of her screentime bedridden and crying.
Prisoners certainly isn’t without merit, but any serious intentions are swamped by an unnecessary violent streak, performances that reek of ham and cheese (Memo to Gyllenhaal: Stop. Bloody. Blinking!) and plot developments dafter than any brush (We haven’t even mentioned the priest, the guy with the mazes or the disappointing final reveal). It’s testament to Villeneuve that Prisoners does holding audience attention by keeping us guessing. It just can’t make up for the silly routes the story is all too happy to go down. Prisoners is so convinced of its own brilliance that it can’t recognize it’s A-grade hokum.