Director: Denis Villeneuve
Writer: Aaron Guzikowski
Release date: September 20, 2013
U.S. box office: $61 million (58th best of 2013)
Worldwide box office: $122.1 million (61st best of 2013)
Days in U.S. theatrical release: 77 days
Rotten Tomatoes rating: 82
Metacritic score: 74
Letterboxd average grade: 3.5/5
“Prisoners is a heavy movie exploring serious themes, similar to the contemporary prestige procedurals Zodiac and Mystic River. But this isn’t always the best direction to go with this material, which in essence is more like a page-turning paperback than a rich drama. Unlike Zodiac, this isn’t a mystery with a lot of red herrings and cold trails, where the real ‘mystery’ is existential… The film follows Keller into the dark, to show how a victim can become a victimizer, and thus perpetuate a vicious cycle of evil. It’s all quite blunt.” —Noel Murray
“French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who made 2010’s captivating Oscar-nominated Incendies, has fashioned a film that is both mainstream and artful. Prisoners is infused with a poetic intensity that’s rare in American thrillers. The closest cinematic comparisons would be Zodiac, In The Bedroom, and Mystic River.” —Claudia Puig, USA Today
“Prisoners explores the subject of vigilante justice from a fresh perspective, making the crusaders ordinary people who have no stomach for violence or torture but must force themselves to cross moral lines for the sake of their loved ones. And the movie makes the dilemma increasingly intense by keeping the viewers guessing about Alex along with everyone else: When he takes his dog for a walk, he stops to briefly torture the animal in a shockingly sadistic manner, then continues on his walk as if nothing had happened. Is he really a diabolical killer?” —Rene Rodriguez, Miami Herald
“The uniformly showy performances (Acting with a capital ‘A’) are what do in Prisoners more than anything. The film has several adeptly directed suspense scenes, such as a nighttime foot chase that makes you gasp at every motion-triggered backyard light, but for all the expertly realized atmosphere, you never sense that any of the players is inhabiting a character. Instead they seem to be dispiritedly reading lines off of an internal teleprompter, lending a mock-sense of gravity to a story whose increasingly risible signs and portents (from snakes in a box to a Lazarus-like cave that figures in a head-slappingly “ambiguous” finale) play like bloated insta-metaphors bolstering a dour, mostly tension-free enterprise.” —Keith Uhlich, Time Out New York
Oscars! Oscars Oscars Oscars! (Oscars!) Prisoners premièred at the 2013 Telluride Film Festival, which has in recent years taken on increasing importance in awards season. After movies like Argo and The King’s Speech debuted there along the way toward Best Picture Oscars, Telluride became the site to launch Academy Award hopefuls. As a result, it also became the site for pundits to anoint Academy Award hopefuls, to be the first to see a movie and declare it a contender—and presumably to bask in the glory if the prediction came true.
The rush to get on a bandwagon can create a feeding frenzy of hype, as bloggers and critics read each other’s early reviews and tweets and repeat them, like a shark let loose in a pool full of chum that’s housed in an echo chamber. Punditry can’t make a bad movie good. But it can start—and then perpetuate—a conversation. And if that conversation gets loud enough, it can propel a film into contention as a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
The conversation around Prisoners coming out of Telluride was deafening. Before its première, the film was flying under the radar, at least as an awards candidate. When Prisoners showed up at Telluride—as a surprise last-minute screening, no less—the response was overwhelming. Deadline’s Pete Hammond’s report from the festival, which declared Prisoners an “instant Oscar contender,” called the response “completely unexpected and significant” and said that instead of the “unworthy commercial film” some were expecting, he found “a first-class motion picture experience unlike any other” he’d seen in a long time. “Pundits,” he continued, “will have to add this Alcon production… to the list of strong Oscar contenders.”
And they did. Reacting to Hammond’s rave and Variety’s review (which called the film “a grand-slam”), The Huffington Post’s Mike Hogan jokingly told voters to “mark [Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal] on your Oscar ballot” before labeling Prisoners “a genuine awards contender, especially given the depth of the cast.” Kris Tapley of In Contention said he didn’t know if Prisoners was “an awards movie,” but added that Jackman “certainly deserves to be in the Best Actor conversation,” along with cinematographer Roger Deakins and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach.
Not every movie is a potential award-winner. But in this emerging culture of early-fall Oscar hype, which is much less concerned with a movie’s quality than its potential to generate awards, they sort of have to be. And in some cases—as with Prisoners—all the Oscar ballyhoo might do more harm than good, by freighting what’s ultimately a slickly made cop movie with far-too-lofty expectations. Audiences expecting a serious exploration of ideas like guilt, justice, and revenge found a lurid mystery with some thematic window-dressing instead. After all that excitement and prognostication, Prisoners only made $60 million at the domestic box office, and received just a single Oscar nomination.
Prisoners’ lone Oscar nod went to its most outstanding element: cinematography by the great Roger Deakins, one of the singular visual geniuses of modern filmmaking, and the Susan Lucci of the Academy Awards—Prisoners was his 10th unsuccessful bid for a gold statue in a 20-year career. A big reason why Prisoners was considered an awards contender at Telluride at all is because Deakins’ work made it look like an awards contender; every frame is imbued with rich colors, textures, and shades. The world of Prisoners is a sad one, with soaking rains, dark woods, and crumbling buildings, and most of the people in it are miserable. There is no joy and little hope. But in Deakins’ camerawork, there is at least a kind of ruined beauty. Few movies about people feeling bad have ever looked so good.
After Deakins’ work, the most common target of praise in Prisoners’ early reviews was Jackman’s performance as Keller Dover, the gruff handyman whose daughter is kidnapped early in the film. And no wonder; his is by far the showiest—and therefore the most Oscar-friendly—in the movie. After Keller’s daughter goes missing, Jackman alternates between scenes where he howls with rage and ones where he tortures the prime suspect in the case (Paul Dano) while howling with rage. He doesn’t chew the scenery; he literally destroys it—most notably in one intense sequence where he bashes a bathroom sink to pieces with a hammer. If they gave Oscars for the loudest performance of the year, Jackman would have been the biggest lock in gambling history. Keller Dover makes Wolverine look like an introverted pacifist.
When Jackman is onscreen, it’s hard to notice anyone around him, partly because his wailing tends to drown everyone else out, and he largely obscures Jake Gyllenhaal as the police detective assigned to Dover’s case. But working in a much subtler—and thus much less Oscar-friendly—register, Gyllenhaal brings a compelling edge to Detective Loki. The small details and tics he gives the character—the way he holds his arms as he interviews a suspect, the pronounced blinks that come over him during moments of stress—help make the man feel like a real human being with a life beyond the edges of Prisoners’ frame.
Prisoners’ cast is generally outstanding. Jackman, Gyllenhaal, and Dano are joined by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis (as Franklin and Nancy Birch, the parents of the other girl who is kidnapped), Maria Bello (as Grace, Keller’s wife), and Melissa Leo (as Dano’s aunt). Few 2013 movies had a more impressive IMDB page.
Unfortunately, that IMDB page is a theoretical. On paper, Prisoners has a tremendous cast. In practice, most of these terrific actors are wasted in tiny roles. Howard and Davis quickly fade to the background, Leo only appears for a few brief scenes at the beginning and end, and Maria Bello, maybe the most talented actor of the entire bunch, spends almost the entire film languishing in bed in a narcotized stupor. Combined, those four actors have maybe 40 minutes of screen time in a 153-minute movie.
The frustrating use of the film’s stars highlights a key issue with its structure. As it opens, it looks like a sensitive drama about grief and loss. The Dovers and Birches’ children are taken, and the parents are wracked with angst and anger. These scenes—which are raw, haunting, and painful—are the best in the picture. But fairly quickly, Prisoners shift gears; Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki and his investigation takes a central role, and when he isn’t onscreen, Villeneuve follows Keller as he tortures Dano’s Alex for information. Keller’s scenes with Alex should further Prisoners’ themes about the slippery nature of justice and vengeance, but they’re much more a showcase for Jackman’s simplistically screamy performance than a consideration of complex ideas, and Villeneuve constantly returns to the lurid specifics of his kidnapping drama, which ultimately comes to involve copycat kidnappers, old true-crime books, desiccated corpses, and containers full of bloody children’s clothes and snakes.
There’s nothing wrong with a salacious crime thriller. The issue with Prisoners isn’t that it’s sensational, but that it isn’t sensational enough. It’s a classic case of a director wanting to have his cake and eat it too. Villeneuve tried to fuse a tawdry detective story with a weighty meditation on big themes like God and sin. But tawdry thrills need to be light on their feet, and weighty meditations can’t delight in sleaze. The twists cheapen the characters’ suffering, and the characters’ suffering makes it impossible to enjoy the twists. The movie is too serious—or maybe too self-serious—to be any fun, and vice versa.
It’s also drenched in way too much heavy religious symbolism. From the opening scene, the movie pounds viewers with Biblical imagery and metaphors with all the subtlety of Hugh Jackman beating the shit out of his bathroom sink. Within Prisoners’ first five minutes, there are two shots of crosses and the first—but far from the last—recitation of the Lord’s Prayer. Detective Loki has a cross tattooed on his hand; the film occasionally cuts from it to the one hanging on the rear-view mirror in Keller’s truck. Keller is a carpenter; later he’s buried, followed by an implied resurrection. Loki does battle with snakes, placed by characters who say they are “at war with God.” And on and on and on; the symbolism is so blunt and obvious, it’s sort of shocking no one in the movie is offered a bite of a glistening apple, or has a conversation with a fiery bush.
Keller’s character—a God-fearing, recovering-alcoholic hunter-survivalist—might have been conceived as a critique of a particular breed of modern American man, the kind so certain in his beliefs that he can convince himself anything he does is right, because it’s all done in service of a greater good and a higher power. Only the most circumstantial evidence connects Alex to the kidnappings, and the police quickly clear him as a suspect; when they do, Keller kidnaps him, takes him to an abandoned building he owns (an extremely convenient detail in a plot that contains several), and tortures him for days on end.
I say might have been conceived as a critique, because Keller’s suspicions that Alex is involved in his daughter’s kidnapping are eventually proven correct (though Alex is mentally challenged, and remains somewhat innocent). Villeneuve also comes perilously close to endorsing torture in the process. Keller’s brutality never yields any tangible information, but it almost does; if Keller understood all the case’s clues the way the audience does, and if he listened more closely to Dano’s woozy, traumatized ramblings, he might have been able to save his daughter without Detective Loki’s help.
It doesn’t help that Prisoners is set in a vaguely defined version of middle America, one with little specificity or concrete sense of place. The world of the film is gorgeous, thanks to Deakins’ cinematography, but it’s frustratingly light on supporting characters beyond the A-list ensemble. The only residents of this town seem to be its main characters, and almost every single person in the film is either a psychopath or a victim. It’s hard to say something meaningful by depicting a place that feels so completely divorced from reality.
In retrospect, it’s a little strange that Prisoners became such a hot Oscar movie at Telluride. The shock of its surprise appearance at the festival, and the thrill of the first people in the world to see it surely played a role, but the film is such a deliberately dour and depressing experience, it’s strange to imagine anyone walking out of it feeling exhilarated about anything, even its chances to win a couple of awards.
Prisoners isn’t terrible, and it does contain memorable elements. One year after it opened, several of Deakins and Villeneuve’s images remain firmly lodged in my brain: a deer standing in a wooded field; Dano, trapped in an improvised cage, with a sliver of light illuminating his battered face. The first act of the movie, before the silliness involving snakes and murderous priests, works pretty well. Keller’s obsession with “preparedness”—killing his own food, filling his basement with emergency supplies—is totally worthless when his daughter’s kidnapped. The idea that all the planning in the world still won’t protect you from malicious evil is a chilling one.
But whatever anxiety that concept generates is eventually dissipated by the outlandish developments that consume Prisoners’ final 90 minutes. Worry about the future is an entirely relatable fear. Worry about torture-lairs, soda-based sedatives, and lunatics obsessed with mazes (which they draw, artfully but crazily, on their walls) is significantly less disturbing—and even a wee bit silly, particularly when treated, as it is here, with absolute and complete solemnity. Then again, that air of total solemnity is probably what earned Prisoners so many early rave reviews from Oscar pundits. Because in the end, what are the Oscars for, if not to celebrate genre films that have been slathered with a superficial sheen of stern self-importance?