The recent “Prisoners” feature was intense enough to induce restless leg syndrome for the evening. It’s a movie where mazes, kidnappings, betrayals (of self), red herrings, frustrated resolutions come on the arm of a “The Shining”-like frost promising to bury everything that isn’t already.
But the picture doesn’t do much to surmount its thriller-mystery genre trappings. And that’s too bad because it tries awfully hard.
My chief bickering here is how the movie’s characters, restricted to possessing only the most banal of human characteristics, cannot bust the outlines of American Hollywood character types. “Prisoners” yo-yos a handful of serious subjects with very little player depth to relieve our tired, prejudiced notions.
The filmmakers want us to see Alex Jones, the main suspect, as a “pervert” (and not normal like “us”) by several means such as his IQ of a 10-year-old; he wears the thick lensed, large framed glasses of Mark David Chapman and Jack Kevorkian; he drives an RV (recall 2011’s “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” where we saw another fictional man’s fondness for youth and recreational vehicles); he qualifies in the most socially inviolable share of the Macdonald triad indicating psychopathic behavior—animal cruelty; and he’s played by Paul Dano.
Unfortunately for Alex (for the movie and for us), we are left with no other sensible option but to dislike Alex from the start. Is there any other character quality revealed in the movie that lifts Alex’s character beyond the “pervert” characteristics curbing our perception of (and accompanying distaste for) him? No.
The picture operates with this “pervert” prejudice in other scenes, too. When Detective Loki attends a candlelight vigil, he is drawn to suspect some perverted motive on the part of Bob Taylor for no other reason than the guy just looks creepy (poor David Dastmalchian).
But this manipulation of bias works in another way, too. The audience needs a good guy so we get Keller Dover. Dover is adequately played by Hugh Jackman, who, as an actor, has yet to yield a performance revealing some other expression of fear besides that of fear masked with anger and tears.
The real one-note treachery does not belong to Jackman, but to the written character. The deck is stacked in Dover’s favor as the quintessential American everyman since he is a practicing Christian who recites the Lord’s Prayer while coaching his son in a deer hunt; he is self-employed; he has a stock of supplies equaling Y2K or other apocalyptic levels of preparedness; he’s leery of the government, or really any authority, and openly challenges it; Bruce Springsteen is his favorite music artist and he sings the Star Spangled Banner in the shower.
Now, to switch gears, the picture should reap some praise for how the movie supplies each character’s back-story with restraint, underplaying dropped character bits like Dover not having enough work to pay off the mortgage on his house (drawing the audience’s sympathy) or how Dover’s father was a police officer who committed suicide (which helps us understand why he bucks against authority and biased against the police) or that Dover is a recovered alcoholic.
My hat’s off to screenwriter Aaron Guzikowski and director Denis Villeneuve for subtly weaving character motives, situations and back-stories into the action. Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki’s obsessive determination to solve the case (e.g. Detective Loki has solved every case he’s been assigned to and he doesn’t sleep – he’s at a cafe in the middle of the night drinking coffee — and he doesn’t shower if his dandruff is any indicator and his ring signifies he is a Freemason, committed to keeping secrets while desperately trying to discover others) is commensurate with that of Gyllenhaal’s character in David Fincher’s “Zodiac,” but it’s “Se7en” and even “The Social Network” that “Prisoners” is most like in its careful distribution of clues to narrative and character (also, Gyllenhaal is a pleasure to watch here).
But part of what’s baffling in “Prisoners” is how the screenplay so confidently builds its characters while disregarding common sense in some of the most contrived situations: a suspect shoots himself in an interrogation room where police officers would not normally bring firearms in; Loki does not call for backup (in three instances: in the basement, at the apartment building and at the Jones’ house) or for an ambulance (so we can have a derivative of the obligatory chase scene); when he’s handcuffed by an open door and Loki’s in another room, Bob Taylor doesn’t run away even though he’s previously shown an aptitude for it; Loki is a dumbass when it comes to tailing a suspect; police investigators pull out gloves, lights and shovels to dig into the Jones’ yard but fail to comb the property where they would surely find Dover’s truck; and more, but I’m tiring of this list…
The chief transgression exposed in “Prisoners” is not the kidnapping of children or the harm inflicted on children (or child-like adults like Alex), but the hidden destructive nature of man.
Keller Dover manifests those stock qualities of an American everyman because it’s his (our) American probity in the dock and being tried here. Dover schools his son, Ralph, in survivalist preparation to “be ready” when society collapses.
But the ground Villeneuve explores here is a place where society has already collapsed. What’s plausibly, but insufficiently substantial in “Prisoners” is how each character, clue-by-clue, is revealed to be incapable of being good.
Every character, not just the kidnappers, cannot escape their evil natures. They all “wage war with God” with the sole exception of Detective Loki, a lesser but still effective god. In fact, that everyone exhibits evil in some measure except Loki is noticeably ironic especially when Loki’s sharply coiffed hair loses place and resembles the Norse god’s devil-like horns when he handcuffs Bob Taylor, preceded by Loki’s ease of mind when descending into a dark basement and later his ease in the presence of serpents.
In the opening shot, we see a deer through immovable prison bars – trees. Later, we’re reminded, somewhat heavy handedly, of the first shot with a separate pick-up of tree bark in front of a victim’s house — human nature is a prison as inscrutable as the tree bark or the maze drawn by Bob Taylor.
When Alex is imprisoned in Dover’s do-it-yourself torture shower bin, there’s certainly a degree of political commentary involved (Dover is the film’s American defendant after all) but that torture bin eventually transforms by use into some eerie confessional where both Alex and Dover begin divulging secrets. (in a movie with several religious references, Loki fastens his collar’s button like a pseudo-priest since the movie’s only other priest is defrocked and a sex offender.)
Roger Deakins’ cinematography is a spectacle all its own, the light leaking through in a movie where artificial lights are unable to uncover, promising future rehabilitation of something that should be torn down instead. Dover’s reliance on light (those industrial lights at his apartment complex) does nothing for him and he’s only finally discovered, reborn as it were in the earth, by Loki in darkness.
Unlike the aforementioned “Se7en” where John Doe’s so-called moral crusade to preach the seven deadly sins became an indictment of human nature, climaxing in the young detective’s participatory murder, “Prisoners” claims human nature is a mystery but cleverly ties up its loose ends and suggests a resolution that “Se7en” showed impossible.
“Prisoners” bends to meet the conventions of the thriller mystery but it leaves a nasty impression of human nature, a feeling that is rewarding to reflect on even if the movie flees the true horror that some lives are lost, buried or out of reach even when the key is in plain sight.