As may be obvious by many of my posts, I watch and read a lot of mysteries. So many that I don’t tend to post about a good percentage of them. I mention this only for context and honesty: I’m a tough audience for mystery.
Prisoners is a good mystery/suspense story that carries through to the last frame, though nothing particularly better than a good BBC Drama (Broadchurch, Vera, The Fall, etc.). So if you enjoyed the movie, and you haven’t found the BBC stuff, you now have a new stack of entertainment to keep you going. If you already are a frequenter of that genre, you’ll likely enjoy Prisoners, though perhaps not be as wowed as general audiences were when it became a sleeper hit this past year. This film, unintentionally, also continues my violence against children theme from a couple weeks back.
In addition to the mystery, Prisoners attempts to give us two sides of a story, which diffuses a lot of the intent and power. Ultimately it doesn’t pay off either main story because it is never entirely clear whose story it is. As a whole, it intends to be a mountain of dark irony. But its overly clever and complex plot would have been served better by concentrating on one side of the story as I don’t think 2.5 hours wasn’t enough to do both (or even all three, depending on how you slice it).
The leads Jackman (The Wolverine) and Gyllenhaal (Souce Code) are both solid performers and are capable of carrying the movie. Jackman’s character is nicely revealed over time and his path through to the end is an interesting one that I would have liked to connect better with. Also, I have to admit, I kept chuckling over how they had to hide his muscles with loose clothing. Gyllenhaal, as the central cop, was a deeply flawed character that we never really entirely get to know or understand. It is these two stories that we follow through the events that unfold. And it is the lack of revelation about either of them that left me feeling a little unsatisfied and disconnected at the end. You cannot fully emotionally commit to the events if you don’t know the characters.
Basically, though, it is a story of three families. Bello (Secret Window), as Jackman’s wife, is effective, but gets lost in the story and the action. I felt very little connection with her as well, which made her fade even more for me. Jackman is the focus here, so this portion of the story doesn’t so much suffer as it isn’t quite as fulfilled.
The second family is headed by Howard (Dead Man Down). He was weaker than I am used to expecting from him. Howard never commanded the screen and his choices were forced. Davis (Ender’s Game), as his wife and mother of the second child, was solid, but repeats a lot of her previous work; she was doing exactly what we’d expect.
The third family is comprised of Leo (Oblivion) and Dano (Ruby Sparks). Leo is practically unrecognizable and plays her part evenly and with great, believable exhaustion. Dano is a confusing creature, by design, and he plays it well. I’m not entirely sure I understand all the choices in the writing, and I think the direction is a little off in the end, but Dano plays it all to the hilt consistently.
To his credit, Director Villeneuve (Incendies) managed to keep the film feeling like his indie roots, with help from the raw writing of Guzikowski (Contraband). In some ways, though, both of these aspects kept throwing me out of the film. An indie feel in plot maintains well, even in a slickly made movie. When dialog and composition keep that feel, it actually makes the film appear under-produced. Perhaps that is just me, but it felt off at times when the dialogue would get “improvy” and choppy in ways that felt like they were forcing a natural feel. It isn’t quite the same issue as Elsyium had, as it wasn’t that Villeneuve was trying to hide his budget, but I’m not convinced he understood the frisson it would create. And I would have preferred a bit more rigor regarding police procedure, but I gave them a pass on a lot of that.
Prisoners is a solid ride and a wonderfully suspenseful plot. They give it time as well, not trying to overly compress the events, allowing the story, if not all the characters, to develop. Their sense of timeline does get lost in this process, though that may have been by design. However, I think it was more a weakness in the editing and writing. I never would have been sure of time passage if it weren’t for dialogue clues like, “It’s been 5 days…” which shouldn’t have been necessary. On the other hand, you don’t often to get to see this kind of complexity in a film, so I give it props for that. I prefer to keep my mind at least a little active while I watch a story, and this one certainly allowed me to do that. I would love to think that the financial success of this story will allow equally thoughtful plots to hit screen over time.
You can’t leave this film unaffected and unthinking. There are too many questions about morality and justice; that alone makes this a movie to see. That it manages to be genuinely entertaining as well, just makes it all the better.