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Prisoners (2013)


Listen carefully.

I'm speaking to you not just as a reviewer, but as a friend. Stay the hell away from Prisoners. Don't let the resounding critical praise, studio estimates of a surprisingly robust opening weekend, or the fact that we're tiptoeing into Oscar season fool you: Denis Villenueve's kidnapping drama may feature a cast full of award-winning Actors, and boast a run-time that screams "legitimacy". But at best, this thing is a poorly conceived, embarrassingly executed re-imagining of the torture-porn sub-genre; at worst, it's emotional rape perpetrated by clumsy, dim-witted assailants who happen to be well-armed.

Prisoners has far too many problems to warrant a traditional write-up, so please indulge me in another List Review. There are nothing but spoilers ahead, so feel free to come back after ignoring my warnings and see if you agree.

1. I Saw What You Did There. I've never seen Villenueve's other work, but I'd bet my gall bladder that he and screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski have seen Saw--and are likely huge fans. Sadly, it's not uncommon for filmmakers to cannibalize "low-culture cinema" when creating award-baiting movies for adults. In many ways, it's the perfect crime: how many members of Prisoners' target audience will A) have flashbacks while watching a main character be tortured while handcuffed in a dirty bathroom for most of the movie, B) raise their eyebrows when a severed pig's head shows up, or C) try to remember which sequel featured the outraged parent who maimed his way right into the villain's hands?

It's amazing how one film's carnage and morally skewed storyline can be written off as unwatchably grotesque in one movie, but be praised as gritty realism in another. But few things will bridge the age-old snobbery chasm, guaranteeing that some filmmakers really can get away with anything.

2. Today's Weather: Overcast. In case you have no idea what I'm talking about, Prisoners tells the story of two close families who are ripped apart when their youngest daughters are kidnapped on Thanksgiving. Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello play Keller and Grace Dover, and Terrence Howard and Viola Davis play Franklin and Nancy Birch. While enjoying a bottle or four of post-feast wine, these upstanding parents realize their little girls have gone missing.

Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal), an edgy renegade with a mysterious past, takes the case. He soon nabs a troubled, developmentally arrested young man named Alex Jones (Paul Dano), whose RV the girls were seen hanging around earlier in the day. With no evidence to hold him, Krueger--sorry, Jones--is set free. Keller kidnaps the boy almost immediately and tortures him for information. Shortly thereafter, the movie decides it's done with everyone else and sends Bello to bed with prescription drugs, gives Davis the freedom to perfect her single-tear, on-camera weeping, and inducts Howard into cinema's Pussy-whipped-Best-Friend-Archetype Hall of Fame.

From the half-way mark on, it's all about Keller, Loki, and Alex's Aunt Holly (Melissa Leo), whose old person makeup is so unintentionally hilarious that I couldn't get Mo Collins' "Lorraine" character from MadTV out of my head.

3. Chew Slower! The Scenery's a Bit Tender. One of Prisoners' biggest problems is that it's got too many marquee stars swinging for the fences in an Oscar-bait picture. Real movies have a solid character hierarchy that gives the breakout actors room to experiment--to go broad and pull back in ways that compliment the situations and people around them. After the first five minutes of this film, no one smiles or laughs or cracks a joke that isn't mean-spirited. It's all crying and yelling and punching and torture and shooting and making us believe that terrible things have happened to little kids. By the ninth scene of Jackman yelling at someone, I no longer heard his dialogue; all that came out of his mouth was, essentially, "Goddammit! I'm not just Wolverine!"

There's no balance to Jackman's performance past minute ten, and the screenplay gives him nowhere else to go. Keller Dover is one of those macho-masturbatory pop fabrications that allows audience members to act out "What They'd Do if Some Pervert Took Their Little Girl". There's no emotional honesty to his character; just a Jack Bauer caricature of a Real Man who would just as soon beat a mentally challenged kid within an inch of his life as stay out of the way of police work.

Speaking of police, I guess we're supposed to look at Gyllenhaal's multiple tattoos, emo haircut, and twitchy eyes and ponder his untold, tragic back story. In reality, it's all just filler as misdirection. Take away these actorly Maguffins and you're left with Gyllenhaal playing a slightly more world-weary version of his character from Zodiac (in a story that's an eighth as good).

4. Nuts in a Name. At Prisoners' three-quarter mark, I became fairly certain that Guzikowski was fucking with me. It took a lot of doing to get over the never-existed-nor-will-ever-exist name of "Keller Dover", and I let "Detective Loki" slide because, well, whatever. But I couldn't accept the red-herring villain's name as being "Alex Jones"--you know, America's most beloved conspiracy theorist whose thoughts on torture, false-flag operations, and the media's deliberate destruction of the family unit could be viewed as the coverage for this movie's screenplay.

The last straw, though, was when the girls' mothers tearfully greeted each other in the hospital right before the climax. I wondered why they would mention talk-show host Nancy Grace under such harrowing circumstances--until I realized that these were the characters' first names. Coincidence? You be the judge.

5. Overwrought and Undercooked. I was with Prisoners for awhile. The kidnapping stuff and the cop stuff and the family stuff all hummed along smoothly, innocuously, and uninterestingly for a good forty minutes. The story wasn't bad, but it had a quaint, 80s-movie-of-the-week quality that made me believe the filmmakers had something really bold up their sleeve. But by the time the vigilante priest popped up, I knew I was in deep, deep trouble.

Yes, while investigating a list of sex offenders in the area, Loki comes across an old, convicted priest (how imaginative!). The padre is passed out when the detective enters his home and discovers a rotting corpse in the basement. Years earlier, a man came to the same house, confessing to murdering children, and the priest took matters into his own hands.

I don't want to rehash the stupid web of narrative connective tissue at play here by sharing the bod's place in all this. Suffice it to say, everything leads back to sweet Aunt Holly, who is also a professional abductor. At the end of the day, Prisoners takes what could have been a heartbreaking, realistic drama about kidnapping and turns it into a deranged comic book movie where a boozing, survivalist Wolverine dukes it out with the witch from Hansel and Gretel. I swear, there are more Scumbags with Secrets per square block in this movie than in all five installments of Grand Theft Auto combined.

6. Great Work, Detective! How does a superstar cop with a perfect record of solving cases not realize that the circular maze drawn by a murder suspect matches the pattern on the necklace of a corpse he found in a priest's basement three days earlier? Especially when he gets a gooood look at the pendant, which was the only recognizable feature of the body?

And if you've just learned that a crazy old lady at the edge of town was involved in the kidnapping and murder of dozens of children in the last twenty years, wouldn't you do a thorough sweep of the property? I know, call me crazy, but I would think that before ordering crews to tear up the front yard, you might want to check the Trans-Am parked out back--the one that may have body parts in the trunk, say, or be sitting on the wooden cover of a makeshift holding cell.

But what do I know?

7. The Roger Deakins? I'm a huge fan of cinematographer Roger Deakins, even if I often have trouble remembering all the movies he's shot that I've loved. A multiple Oscar-nominee, he's worked on everything from Fargo to Skyfall, and he never fails to impress. Except on Prisoners. Maybe the poisonous script spewed out onto his camera lens, but this is one of the weakest visual presentations I've seen in awhile.

Maybe that's not fair. Prisoners looks expensive and feels professional. But the visual choices here--for which I must assign equal blame, I suppose, to the editor and director--are just plain weird. In the beginning, for example, we hold for several seconds on a tree in one of the families' front yard. It feels in the moment like we're supposed to be taking notes. But this shot doesn't represent anything; nor is it called back later in the film. It's just there, hanging over what should have been a respectable movie, with all the other garbage.

Another scene in which Jackman and Gyllenhaal argue is shot exclusively in singles; the result is two actors who appear to be performing different scenes (or different interpretations of the same one), in different rooms--possibly on different continents.

One might argue that a great cinematographer can elevate weak material, but that person hasn't seen Prisoners--and would, I suspect, not answer the question, "Would Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen have been a better picture if shot by Roger Deakins?" with a confident, "Yes!"

The long and short of it is that Prisoners is a sham, a criminal waste of time, talent, and resources that will hopefully be forgotten once we get into the full swing of Awards Season. It seems every year we get a much-buzzed-about movie that ultimately goes nowhere, and I sincerely hope Prisoners is the red-headed step-child of 2013--the obnoxious one who disappears and is never heard from again.

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