Grossing nearly $21 million, “Prisoners” led the box-office race last week. But is the film worth your $10 (or $6 if you take in a matinee showing)? Here's what I had to say in the review I wrote for Spokane Public Radio:
Most movie fans know what it feels like to be out of sync with the rest of an audience. Say, when you’re the only one laughing out loud. Or, equally as confounding, when everyone around you is laughing and you’re sitting there, wondering … well, why.
I had that experience Saturday at the end of the film “Prisoners.” When the screen went black, and the closing credits began to roll, I heard someone say, “What?” And, quickly, someone else says, “That’s bullpoop” – only he didn’t say poop.
And I wanted, not for the first time, to turn around and ask what the problem was. Did they not like the way the film ended, which seemed to me to be a natural culmination of everything that had preceded it? Or was their discontent, like mine, wedded to a plot point that had occurred some 30 minutes earlier? Impossible to say, really.
“Prisoners” is a film, directed by the Canadian-born filmmaker Denis Villeneuve, that involves the disappearance of two pre-teen girls. It stars Hugh Jackman and Maria Bello as the parents of one girl, Terrence Howard and Viola Davis as the parents of the other. Jake Gyllenhaal stars as the investigating police officer, and Paul Dano is perfectly cast as the creepy, intellectually challenged suspect.
On a basic level, “Prisoners” offers a fairly straightforward story: The girls disappear following Thanksgiving dinner, and suspicion quickly falls on a mysterious RV that had been parked nearby. When police, led by Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki, corner the vehicle, the driver Alex –played by Dano – panics and crashes.
Any hope for a quick resolution, though, is dashed when it becomes clear that Alex has the emotional equivalency of a 10-year-old. And as time passes, the police are forced to let him go.
Meanwhile, Jackman’s character – a survivalist/can-do type named Keller – rages. Uncomfortable doing nothing, and unable to offer his wife the emotional support she needs, Keller seethes when Alex is set free. And as so often happens in movie and TV dramas, he decides to take matters into his own hands. What Keller does, and how those philosophically problematic events play out, makes up the majority of the film’s plot.
What sets “Prisoners” apart from your standard Hollywood thriller, though, are Villeneuve’s filmmaking sensibilities. As he showed in his 2010 film “Incendies,” Villeneuve is more attuned to film art than movie thrills. He spends as much time capturing images of headlights blurred by sleet-strewn windshields as he does letting Jackman and Gyllenhaal emote during scenes that emphasize angst over plot progression.
And he seldom finishes a sequence’s action, preferring to lead his audiences to the obvious conclusion and letting us decide for ourselves what will happen next.
These attributes do make “Prisoners” something special: a thinking person’s exercise in suspense, punctuated by believably intense performances put in by a talented cast of actors.
The bad news is that, ultimately, Villeneuve’s efforts get reined in by a plot that reverts to standard thriller form, offering a rather obvious villain and a solution that owe less to art than to paint-by-number screenwriting.
So, structurally, Villeneuve’s ending actually makes perfect sense. Thematically, though, the whole final twist of “Prisoners” feels about as artificial as a pile of plastic … well, poop.
Feel free to substitute any four-letter word you prefer.