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Non-Review Review: Prisoners

Prisoners is very much a game of two halves. Feeling like two separate films grafted together, Prisoners feels at once like a psychological exploration of American masculinity and also a far more conventional serial killer film. Indeed, had director Denis Villeneuve and writer Aaron Guzikowski decided to cut suddenly to black two-thirds of the way through Prisoners, we’d have a frustrating but much more cohesive atmospheric drama.

Instead, it seems like the duo conspired to surgically attach the last act from a far more conventional thriller on to their robust framework. The result is intriguing, but disappointing – the conventional paint-by-numbers final third diminishing a lot of the richness to be found in the first section of the film.

Somebody is about to get Jack(man)ed...

Somebody is about to get Jack(man)ed…

Prisoners opens with every parent’s nightmare. Two children are kidnapped in broad daylight, abducted from just outside their family homes. The police can’t find any clues or evidence, but the father of one of the girls is convinced that a suspect knows more than he is letting on. With the police investigation finding nothing but dead ends, the father elects to take matters into his own hands. Brought to life by a powerhouse cast, Prisoners is visceral and moody and powerful, unsettling and provoking, bold and daring.

Keller Dover is a man who defines himself by his masculinity. His basement is stocked up with all manner of survival gear. The movie opens with Keller teaching his son how to hunt, warning about the possibility that the society could collapse at any moment. “You will be the only person you can count on,” he warns his son. The rest of the sentiment remains unspoken. Keller clearly believes that he may be the only person that his family can count on.

The case is a bit of a washout...

The case is a bit of a washout…

Arguing with Detective Loki about his missing daughter, Keller insists that she must be out there waiting for him to find her. “Not you,” he informs the detective. “Me.” Lying in bed with his wife, in the wake of what has happened, she muses, “We thought you’d keep us safe; you could protect us from anything.” The inference is obvious – all of Keller’s preparation has been for nothing. For all his talk, he can’t protect his family. Indeed, as the investigation into his daughter’s disappearance presses on, Keller grows ever more distant from the rest of his family – delegating the management of his medicated wife to his young son.

In many respects, Prisoners seems to be a movie about masculinity, about fathers and children. The chief suspect in the case, Alex Jones, grew up without his mother and father. His uncle – a father figure – walked out one day and simply never came back. Detective Loki grew up in state care, suggesting a personal motivation for his pursuit of child predators. We’re informed early on that Keller’s own father committed suicide. His legacy to his son is a dirty old building that Keller can’t seem to let go of – he won’t sell it on, but he won’t consider fixing it up to rent it out.

Everything's gone a bit Loki around here...

Everything’s gone a bit Loki around here…

The movie opens with a prayer to “Our Father.” The Hail Mary is not recited. The female characters are – with a few pointed subversions, standing out in stark contrast – defined by their secondary roles. Keller’s wife spends most of the movie confined to her bed, in denial about her daughter’s disappearance. At one point, Detective Loki even calls attention to her absence, making it clear that the movie wants us to notice. (In a way, this is the reason that the movie’s third act doesn’t feel as sharp a swerve as it might otherwise.)

Keller feels powerless and helpless in the face of this most terrible of circumstances, and Hugh Jackman is phenomenal as a man pushed to the very edge of reason – struggling to do something that might make him feel useful. Indeed, Prisoners plays up hyper-masculine heroic stereotypes by pushing Keller into an “ends justify the means” situation, with a ticking clock providing all the impetus he needs. Keller feels almost like a deconstruction of the Jack Bauer archetype, the strong man who can use brutal force for what he deems the greater good.

Unenhanced interrogation...

Unenhanced interrogation…

Prisoners is a rich and vivid cinematic experience, and it’s bristling with good ideas. There’s all manner of thoughtful (if occasionally overwhelming) religious subtext – from the fact that Keller is a carpenter through to Loki’s tattoos through to the recurring snake imagery and even the use of prayer. Prisoners is shrewd enough to be ambiguous in its use of this imagery, inviting the viewer to make of it what they will, and reach their own conclusions about the way that faith shapes and moulds the characters.

It’s also worth noting that Prisoners is strongest when it refuses the easy answers. Loki’s investigation into the missing children quickly becomes a chase down a rabbit hole, leading to all sorts of red herrings and dead-ends. There’s something hauntingly inconclusive about all this, as if the world is not a place that always affords simple answers to complex questions. Prisoners suggests that Keller and his family inhabit a world where nothing is necessarily resolved. Threads can dangle in the air, unanswered – puzzles without solutions, mazes without exits.

Copping on...

Copping on…

However, the last third of Prisoners ventures away from this intriguing suggestion. Naturally, it winds up that everything is connected. To be fair, Prisoners plays perfectly fair. It buries the solution to the mysteries in plain sight, and I’ll concede that I had a theory fairly close to the resolution before the third act kicked off. However, the movie’s resolution feels like a cheat. It’s a con, a far too easy way for the movie to tidy up various loose ends and offer a definitive conclusion.

Indeed, the climax to Prisoners feels like something from a far more conventional serial killer film. It explicitly calls to mind the American version of The Vanishing, complete with contrivance and coincidence. Important characters all but vanish from the final third of the film, their fate revealed through post-script newspaper headlines, as the movie features on a more mundane race-against-time scenario than the one facing Keller for most of the rest of the film.

Sometimes revenge isn't a dish best served cold...

Sometimes revenge isn’t a dish best served cold…

There’s still a great degree of technical skill here. Roger Deakins can film one hell of a beautiful car chase, and Jóhann Jóhannsson can set it to a beautifully ethereal score. However, it still feels like a sequence carried over from a lesser movie, something added to the end of the movie to make it something easier to classify or quantify. That ending feels a little bit too obvious, a little bit too neat. It alters the shape of what came before, smoothing over rough edges that were better a little rough.

For most of its runtime, Prisoners is a vivid and beautiful atmospheric thriller, possibly one of the most compelling and intriguing movies of the year. Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite stick the landing, and the result is a two-and-a-half-hour movie that feels less fulfilling than it would have been had it been trimmed to a neat two hours.


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