A dour, realistic, and compelling investigation into the ethics and efficacy of torture, largely undone once the Joker escapes from Arkham.
Directed by Dennis Villenueve
Written by Aaron Guzikowski
With Hugh Jackman (Keller Dover), Jake Gyllenhaal (Det. Loki), Paul Dano (Alex Jones), Terrence Howard (Franklin Birch), Viola Davis (Nancy Birch), David Dastmalchian (Bob Taylor), and Melissa Leo (Holly Jones)
Spoiler alert: high
Prisoners begins in a version of reality that is generally considered synonymous with the actual world, and continues in this vein for a very long time, albeit not remotely long enough.
But we get ahead of ourselves. Presently, the Dover and Birch families are having Thanksgiving dinner together. Their respective youngest daughters go out to play—but minutes become hours, and they never come home. The Dovers and Birches are in a state of high hysteria; Detective (sigh) Loki (yeah) is assigned to the case. There is only one clue to the children's disappearance: they were seen playing on an RV parked up the street. The RV is tracked down and its driver, Alex Jones, is arrested.
The police find no evidence of any wrongdoing, however, discovering only that Jones is somewhere between seriously and profoundly mentally handicapped. So they cut him loose. But patriarch Keller Dover—devout Christian, survivalist, hunter, talk radio listener, Ayn Rand reader (probably)—cannot shake his suspicions. This is probably because Jones, on his way out of custody, throws it in his face that he pretty definitely knows what happened to the kids. So the mystery, such as it is—and Prisoners is pitched as a mystery—is who helped him. Hey, worse has been made with more.
Armed with this certainty, Keller kidnaps Jones, secreting him away in a burned-out apartment building that Dover conveniently owns (don't we all own places where we may extraordinarily render our enemies?). Keller tortures Jones. And tortures Jones. And tortures Jones. A lot. Loki, meanwhile, because he is a robot built and inadequately programmed to solve crimes, keeps violating the 4th Amendment. And keeps violating the 4th Amendment. And keeps violating the 4th Amendment. A lot. He also, at length, becomes suspicious of Jones' disappearance and Dover's odd behavior.
Hey! We've got a thriller everybody!
For the most part Prisoners is an interesting and well-built thriller, at that. It is, surprisingly, also an equally interesting drama, appearing to take the issues it raises quite seriously but without resorting to preachiness. Torture of an incredibly graphic kind is handled with a brave neutrality, and Prisoners, on a certain level, almost functions as a think piece on the matter, reveling in its own ambiguity. Considered part and parcel with The Jacked Man's modulation of his well-known berserker rage into something recognizable and human, it is by far the most valuable and interesting aspect of the film.
The strong construction affords a pace that turns a two and a half hour picture into what feels like no more than two. That Prisoners never really feels like it's wasting our time is a triumph of great editing and effective screenwriting. And, yes, that is as distinct from great screenwriting. Or good screenwriting. Or adequate screenwriting.
Because there are problems; or, phrased another way: man, are there problems. The biggest occur so far into the film that to discuss them involves spoiling things—although I'll note that that's a serious problem by itself. You just can't be prepared for a movie to become hackwork well over an hour deep into its running time.
But we can talk about Detective Loki without spoiling a damned thing. The name, although clearly deliberately chosen, is also meaningless. In fact, no one even mentions that it's weird. Certainly at no point is Loki symbolically bound beneath the earth with his own child's intestines for his crimes, for example; although that's certainly the natural conclusion you'd jump to upon hearing the name. If you'd ever read a book.
Then there is the acting tic which Gyllenhaal developed for the character on his own initiative—it was not in the script—but which was prefigured in its basic contours by no less a film than Parts: The Clonus Horror. This is his weird, inhuman blinking. He did this, yet no one stopped him.
In Parts, though, there was a reason, if a bad reason, for this bad idea. That's to say this: a movie that was featured on MST3K was less arbitrary in its conception than this marquee release. Indeed, that statement is true in a lot more respects than Gyllenhaal's eyelids. But—in fairness—Parts is one of the better movies that MST3K ever did.
The sun gets in your eyes when it's the twilight of the gods.
Finally, Loki is just not a very competent detective. He has bad instincts, ignores a lot of clues, when he does find clues he does so through dumb luck, he is constitutionally incapable of having a conversation like a human being... and, really, he's just constitutionally incapable period, apparently unaware of legal niceties like the fruit of the poisonous tree. (Indeed, Detective Loki doesn't know from poison.)
He serves as a counterpoint to Keller's balls-to-the-wall fascism hardly at all, and fails even as a screenwriting construct representing the rule of law in either its limitations or its strengths. In one regard only is he successful: as a dumb flatfoot with a ludicrous name and a face disorder that's tantamount to a physical disability, the great randomness of Loki's existence actually contributes to the grave realism which the film strongly establishes in its first phase.
You know, the grave realism that it throws away in the space of a single scene.
Not many people know this, but Prisoners began life as a grim-and-gritty sequel. Unfortunately, David Bowie refused to sign on and heavy rewrites were required.
The problem is as follows. Movies in general, thrillers in specific, and thrillers involving serial killers, child abductors, or sex murderers in more-specific, have a brief window to figure out what register they're going to operate in.
Take Seven or Silence of the Lambs. These movies advertise what they're doing from their first moments; how long is it before Hannibal Lecter shows up in Silence? Ten minutes? Twenty, at most; and I think it's more like five. And John Doe's deadly sins-based motif is certainly unearthed before the hour and a half mark. Those films are essentially supervillain stories in worlds without superheroes.
On the other end of the spectrum you have The Hunt or Mystic River, grim portraits of prejudice and crime, (not) coincidentally revolving around bad things happening (or believed to have happened) to children. I know: I criticized, without fully condemning, The Hunt for failing to go broad, and here I'm criticizing Prisoners, with a hint of condemnation, for doing exactly what I asked The Hunt to do. Well: for one, Prisoners is a little lazier about it than you'd want. Not entirely lazy, but not interested in giving its supervillains the space they need to effectively creep, either.
For two: I criticized The Hunt for misleading its audience. That film all but swore cool genre action would form its climax, before deciding it wouldn't have a climax at all, really, and would instead hew to its previous mode, that of the sad-sack drama. Prisoners, on the other hand, promises realism, or a kind of realism, and the sad-sack drama that would entail, and does so for the equivalent of The Hunt's whole damn running time. It manages an even more difficult tonal shift—from depth to breadth rather than the other way around—with significantly less aplomb.
To imagine Prisoners, imagine a story sewed together out of the skin of Seven and the heart of Mystic River. There you have it; and the seams don't just show, they come apart.
The moment this occurs is easy to pinpoint: it's when Loki busts into a suspect's house and beholds, with horror, production design from a goofy 1990s Lambs-knock off. Oh, nothing is really wrong with it—in fact, it's unsettling enough—but other than its suburban squalor, it is literally a Batman villain's lair, and if this were a Batman comic its owner would wear a hood shaped like a bull's head and eat virgins. Mazes are drawn on every available surface; in the spare bedroom are locked boxes full of mysterious—no doubt gnarly!—stuff.
"What's in the box? What's in the box? C'mon, what's in the BAAAHHHHX?"
And it goes on from there, briefly stopping in to visit Hugh Jackman's serious meditation on torture/different movie entirely, until he too is sucked into the nonsense vortex. It is less terrible when he is involved, true; and the final half hour, ending in that harsh cut to black and an inevitable if ambiguous fate, do much to redeem Prisoners. But I have already said that Jackman is great, and that this is by-and-large a well-made movie.
Unfortunately, thrillers also are inordinately prone to mechanical failure in their plots, as well, and Prisoners mechanically fails half a dozen times. No failure was quite so egregious to snap me completely out of the film while it was actually playing; but they stick deeply in the craw. My favorite one is the realization that Alex Jones can resist torture like a 00. At least, for as long as the movie requires him to.
I'll concede that one huge plot hole—involving the ultimate fate of the children—is ultimately forgivable, explained by some crucial cuts made when the film was taken from an NC-17 to an R. But the others (and I have only glided over the surface—severe spoilers there) will ravage any memory of having enjoyed the film. So little really holds up, and well-made or not, the experience is too tonally deranged to truly camouflage the flaws.
And there is one more thing I must dwell on, at a little length; I apologize, but it's both hilarious and sad. I don't know exactly how to characterize it. It's not quite a plot hole. It's more like a failure on every possible level of filmmaking: the screenwriter failed to visualize what his stage directions meant; the actor did something without thinking about it; the director and the cinematographer and the sound guys and the interns didn't see it; and finally the editor and the director, given another chance, didn't cut it. Let's return to the Minotaur's lair.
After having subdued the suspect in his silly house, Loki searches the joint, finding that room full of boxes secured by padlock. He breaks the lock on the first, because of course he does, and finds bloodied children's clothes, because of course he does, but beneath that:
To reiterate: there are locked boxes in this guy's house, filled with bloodied children's clothes, and live snakes. Let's not mind the logistics, let's just mind what's on the screen.
Loki does not call for back-up or an animal control team—because, really, is he that much more functional than poor Alex Jones? Nope; instead, he just blithely opens another box, even as the snakes are crawling across his legs. Once again, beneath the bloodied clothes, there are more snakes.
So Loki opens a third box.
P.S.: So we've got a Loki... and snakes... and blinking... Jesus, Prisoners. You're killing me.