Thursday, 26 September 2013

Prisoners


After watching the first few minutes of Prisoners, I remembered seeing the trailer and I asked myself what I was doing in the theatre, because the trailer had not excited me. It was not until the credits rolled at the end of the film that I recalled why I felt I needed to view this film as soon as it was released, namely because it’s directed by Denis Villeneuve, a Canadian director whose last film, Incendies, is among my all-time favourites. 


Prisoners is Villeneuve’s first English-language film and his first collaboration with a major studio. The latter is generally not a good thing, but no one can accuse Prisoners of being typical Hollywood fare. For one thing, this is a very difficult film to watch. The older couple sitting in front of me should not have been in the theatre (and I am not referring to their tendency to share their thoughts and feelings with the rest of the audience). Prisoners was simply too dark, too traumatic and too graphic for them to handle. So be warned. Stay away unless you are up for a gruesome night out.

I will give as little away as possible, but I assume almost everyone with any interest in the film knows (even I knew) that Prisoners is about the kidnapping of two young girls. Jake Gyllenhaal plays Detective Loki, the lonely melancholic police officer in charge of the case. Hugh Jackman plays Keller, the distraught father of one of the girls. We learn in the opening scene that Keller is a devout Christian and a survivalist, ready for any global catastrophe. But he’s not ready for this. Loki and Keller are both after the same thing but their methods are quite different, so their frustration and anger is often directed as much at each other as it is at the kidnapper. 

Prisoners is a psychological thriller full of relentless suspense and terror. And yet I would argue that it worked for me because it’s primarily a drama; a drama about the sudden turns life can take and the lines people will cross when enough is at stake. The film also worked because both Jackman and Gyllenhaal deliver awesome performances (among the best I’ve seen this year) that take us deep into the psyche of their characters. Maria Bello (as Keller’s wife), Terrence Howard and Viola Davis (as the parents of the other girl) and Melissa Leo also deliver first-rate performances.

The cinematography is almost as important and impressive as the acting. Prisoners is set in Pennsylvania in late November. Talk about bleak and dreary. Even the days are dark in Prisoners. The skies are always grey and most of the time it’s raining (sometimes even snowing). It’s a brilliant evocation of the mood of all of the film’s characters and was one of the highlights of my viewing experience.

It all sounds great so far, but, as intelligent, well-structured and captivating as the screenplay is, I can’t let the writer (Aaron Guzikowski) off the hook. Even if I could forgive an overdose of twists and turns, some of which I predicted, and the isolated, but major, cliches, I cannot get over the feeling that Guzikowski got carried away with his clever plot, leading to a last half hour that is out of control and ultimately let me down (though I liked the final scene). I am partly referring to the murky moral waters of Prisoners, waters so dark that even I (with my strong stomach) am afraid to look too closely, lest I see something too terrifying to consider. Scary stuff. 

Of course, an argument could be made that Prisoners is a very discussable thought-provoking film, a film which asks important questions and even delivers some accurate political commentary. And the film’s title is a good discussion-starter on its own. There are many ways in which the characters in Prisoners (not to mention the viewers) find themselves in prison. But so far I have no one with whom I can discuss the film.

I won’t say more, in case there are readers brave enough to disregard my warnings and head to the cinema. And I’m giving Prisoners a solid ***+ to entice them further. My mug is up but don’t assume that’s a recommendation. 

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