A Prisoner of its Own Ambition Leaves the Audience Feeling Like They Are the Ones Who Are Trapped
Director: DENIS VILLENEUVE/2013
Prisoners is a film that on the surface should be a knockout. The cast is anchored by Hugh Jackman (The Wolverine, Les Miserables, Real Steel) and Jake Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, End of Watch, Brokeback Mountain) and features the support of Terrance Howard (Dead Man Down, Hustle & Flow, Iron Man), Viola Davis (The Help), Maria Bello (History of Violence, ER), Paul Dano (There Will Be Blood, Looper), and Melissa Leo (Oblivion, The Fighter). The premise featured in the trailer is a guaranteed nail-biter: two little girls, who are friends, are kidnapped from their front yard during a Thanksgiving dinner without leaving any clues behind. The parents are frantic. When the cops can’t find any actionable leads, despite having a suspect in custody, the fathers of the two children begin to enact justice in ways that the police cannot.
The movie sets itself up as a mystery, leaving you clues along the way of who might be responsible for the kidnapping of these two innocent children. The real mystery, however, is how a film like this, which is clearly a vehicle built to be a massive hit, falls so short of its promise and leaves the audience with such a mundane experience.
You must be warned up front that this film clocks in at roughly 153 minutes. And as you watch, you feel every second. There are moments where Prisoners is compelling and gripping, and then there are long stretches of time where we are meant to feel what the parents are feeling, not knowing if they’ll ever see their little girls again. While this is a great plot device that is meant to attach the audience to the emotions being felt onscreen, Prisoners very rarely grabs you and draws you into the emotion of the characters onscreen. It instead has you checking your watch.
This is part of the mystery of the failings of this film, because Hugh Jackman does a great job in this role as a contractor trying to hold it together while desiring justice be served and his little girl to be found. But despite his efforts, so much of the support system of his family and friends seems detached from him, despite the sound performances of the cast. Maria Bello, who plays his wife, is largely missing throughout the film and you never sense that they are part of the same family trying to deal with the same event. Each copes in their own way, but rarely does the film try to connect us to the family as a whole. His son gets one bonding scene with his father and one with his sister before disappearing for 3/4ths of the film.
Terrence Howard’s role could have been developed a lot more. Meant to be a contrasting personality and more of a morally grounded individual compared to Jackman, Howard is given very little to do except stand around, in each scene, watching Jackman will himself to break all kinds of moral boundaries in order to help their daughters make it home alive.
Jake Gyllenhaal, likewise, plays a quiet police officer who is said to have solved every case he has been on. We are given no other real background despite a mention of troubled past in a church-based boys home. He is simply slow, steady, methodical, and subdued in his approach to the case. Yet despite his subdued portrayal, his presence fills the screen, as do hints that he has a much more colorful past than his squeaky clean cop persona would suggest. Tattoos adorn his neck, and hands, in contrast with his clean-cut mannerisms and dress. His steady, somber, yet relentless nature is a great complement to the anxious, angry, slightly-odd survivalist of Jackman’s character.
Other films in this vein I believe, despite being a bit more manipulative in getting the audience pumped up to destroy the bad guys, have done a better job than Prisoners at grabbing the audience, pulling them into the emotions of the family going through the ideal, and allowing them the release they need to pursue justice as they watch it unfold. Ron Howard’s Ransom is a prime example of what Prisoners sets out to be, even if Prisoners would prefer to be more raw in its portrayal than the Hollywood gloss and polish of the Mel Gibson starring film. But where Ransom, and even the more recent Taken, played all the right notes for the audiences enjoyment, Prisoners seems content to sit back and just let it slowly unfold layer by layer, even if it loses the audience it is trying to win.
Too much time is spent with Jackman capturing and torturing the person he believes is responsible for the crime against his little girl than him simply getting some facts that allows him to push forward. In fact, the entire middle part of the movie seems stuck in the same gear and bogs down any goodwill it built up with the premise, cast, and tense first act.
By the time the third act kicks into gear, we finally get a taste of what the movie is aiming for. Clues begin to become more clear, and lead to more questions that take the script forward. But as it does so, Jackman and Gyllenhaal and the antagonist is all there really is. We loose touch of Terrance Howard, Viola Davis, Maria Bello and their families for the most part. While this enables the film to focus the storyline in order to jump into a higher gear in terms of action, their part of the story being overlooked causes the ending of the film to largely lose the family-based validation and reconciliation that it was seeking at the beginning of the film.
In the end, the straight-forward kidnapping, vigilante justice film narrative that it seeks to pursue is distracted by a weightier religious subplot that is not fully dealt with. Religious iconography fills the screen from statues, crosses, and platitudes. We also see characters steeped in a version of faith or the lack thereof. Each character in the film seems to be a subtle caricature of the religious extremists we read about. All are Christian-based caricatures in this film. Their form of faith is to listen to odd gospel music, plan for surviving the end of days, or have religious motivations for some of the most odd behaviors they exhibit. Ultimately, we are presented with the notion of a war going on against God. Apparently this whole film is a visual depiction of this war as it plays out in all of our lives. Everyone is a cause, and everyone is a victim of this battle.
This exploration of brokenness and its effect on our actions and their ramifications is a bold idea and worthy of explorations, but here it serves as a distraction to the larger narrative the audience is there to see played out on the screen.
In the end, Prisoners simply ends without fully resolving the conflict it set-up in the beginning. This only solidifies the problem many will have with the film as a whole. Namely, how can a film with such a strong story, cast, and narrative find itself falling so short of its own goals and only producing a lackluster experience despite a gut-ripping subject matter? The answer is that maybe this film is simply a prisoner of its own ambition. The problem is that while watching this movie, we feel like the ones who are trapped.