Film review of 'Prisoners': An incendiary mix that metamorphosises into Scooby Doo
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve made a real impact on this reviewer with his second film, Incendies (2010), which I discovered completely by chance. Here was a solid hand that understood the craft of eliciting strong performances and the art of telling complex, primarily visual, non-linear stories to great emotional effect. Incendies is a story about Canadian twins who, at the behest of their dying mother, return to a raging ideological conflict in her native Middle East to deliver a message to a father they never knew. I wasn’t the only one who felt the impact of that film – it was nominated for a foreign language Oscar. Prisoners marks Villeneuve’s return – having considerably upgraded his arsenal with a bunch of big name actors and a budget to match the size of his talent.
Keller Dover (Jackman) and his friend Franklin (Howard) are enjoying a Thanksgiving weekend at home with their family in a sleepy Canadian neighbourhood. The North American landscape of suburban homes and sprawling woodland offers echoes of Twin Peaks – as does the plot. Keller and Franklin’s young daughters go missing. A full-scale police investigation soon follows, which is led by Detective Loki (Gyllenhaal), a man who’s solved every case he’s ever worked on. The only lead they have is a mysterious camper van parked outside, which disappeared at precisely the same time as the girls. The van’s driver (Dano) is apprehended but subsequently acquitted without charge. Multiple leads then present themselves to occupy Loki and half the state police. Keller, frustrated at the lack of police progress and his inability to fulfil his protective paternal role, is convinced that the van driver knows more than he’s letting on. He elects to take matters into his own hands.
Jackman thunders into this role as the distraught father at the end of his tether. He’s obviously relishing the opportunity to flex his drama muscles (rather than muscle-muscles), but although his wild-eyed, deadly-grim conviction does effectively communicate the harrowing anxiety of the situation, this burning intensity soon hits the ceiling and has nowhere left to go, staying up there for the remainder of a considerable running time. Eventually, the performance starts to feel somewhat indulgent. Blame must, in part, be attributable to the script or the direction, but there’s little shape to his emotions. It’s Gyllenhaal’s more understated role that really impresses here. What must have looked like much less on paper is brought to life in an intelligent, nuanced way. Gyllenhaal couldn’t be further from his masterful portrayal of the heroic street cop in last year’s End of Watch, but he’s equally good, if not better here. When we’re first introduced to him, all tattoos and brooding menace, you’d be forgiven for thinking him the villain of the piece. It’s this subtle signposting and deliberate wrong-footing that ensures we stay engaged throughout.
Disappointingly, Prisoners is ultimately a much more conventional film than Incendies, cast from a familiar American mould. Despite powerhouse performances, expressive, haunted lighting (by Coen Brothers regular Roger Deakins) and Villeneuve’s direction, which effectively elevates the first half above any regular police procedurals, Prisoners loses its way during the second. It starts out by recalling the blue, hazy mood of restrained Australian whodunnit Lantana (2002), segues into Silence Of The Lambs territory, and then regrettably, concludes with Scooby Doo. While it avoids the abyss with some genuinely affecting scenes, the damage is done. What might have been a genre-defining masterpiece, is merely a memorable thriller.
Dir: Denis Villeneuve; US thriller, 2013, 153 mins; Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Paul Dano