(US - 2013)
Directed by Denis Villeneuve. Written by Aaron Guzikowski. Cast: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Melissa Leo, Paul Dano, Len Cariou, Wayne Duvall, David Dastmalchian, Dylan Minnette, Zoe Borde, Erin Gerasimovich, Kyla Drew Simmons. (R, 153 mins)
PRISONERS, the English-language debut of Quebecois director Denis Villeneuve (INCENDIES), is a riveting but frequently frustrating thriller that suffers from its own lofty ambitions. Scripted by Aaron Guzikowski (CONTRABAND), it works very well as a thriller, but doesn't seem content with just being a thriller. It wants to make big statements and grand proclamations, but doesn't really do anything with them. When it focuses on being a "movie," which is what it does most of the time, it's a superbly-crafted genre piece. When it focuses on being a "film," it often succumbs to heavy-handedness. Villeneuve is an excellent filmmaker, but he comes off as a bit of a snob. I get the feeling that he finds multiplex genre fare beneath him and tries to make this more "significant" than it needs to be, starting with its unwieldy and sometimes cumbersome 153-minute running time. It's never dull, but it probably could've been just as effective at a more streamlined 120 or so minutes. It's almost as if the film is long so it would be interpreted as "important."
For the most part, Jackman convincingly sells Keller's rage, but there are some scenes where he's a little too over-the-top, and Guzikowski's script makes the daring decision to spend a little time almost attempting to turn Keller into not the villain, but a villain, especially when his own actions start to impede Loki's investigation. But it's here where the problems start. It takes people way too long to comment on a high-profile kidnapping suspect going missing for days. And how long does Keller expect to get away with what he's doing when he parks his work truck with his name on the side of it near the abandoned building? And of course the recovering alcoholic Keller falls off the wagon (with the requisite brown paper bag) and of course Grace disappears into a haze of sleeping pills and anti-depressants as Bello spends most of the remainder of the film asleep in bed. The filmmakers don't spend much time at all addressing the grief of the Birch family, but then, they don't have a patriarch who's paranoid and close to foaming at the mouth even on his best days. It's by design that Howard's Franklin is supposed to be the voice of reason against Keller's all-consuming quest for Biblical vengeance, but the film sometimes forgets that two families are in pain here.
PRISONERS goes into some unexpectedly dark places for a mainstream, big-studio movie, but I found myself most intrigued by Gyllenhaal's Detective Loki and wished that we learned more about his backstory. Introduced eating Thanksgiving dinner alone at a Chinese buffet, Loki, with his intense blinking tic, zodiac tats on his knuckles, a Freemason ring and neck tat, and awkwardly-fitting shirts that are at least a size too small, is one of the strangest heroes to come down the pike in a while. He sometimes lets his inexperience show (he tails Keller at one point, but gets made when he ends up blocking traffic and people start laying on their horns), and he's also dangerously impulsive, has no qualms about telling his captain (Wayne Duvall) what he thinks ("Hey, Captain...why don't you do me a favor and go fuck yourself?"), and is a loner on the force who doesn't seem to interact very well with his colleagues. We don't learn much about Loki's obviously troubled past other than an offhand remark about spending time in a boys' home. That, and he seems to really personally dislike Cariou's pedophile priest, so interpret that how you will. Loki's an odd, fascinating character and we're intentionally kept at a distance with him, yet Gyllenhaal utilizes his skills as an actor to bring added dimensions to him (Gyllenhaal has said in interviews that the blinking tic was his own idea). It's an awards-caliber performance, and the actor's best since David Fincher's 2007 masterpiece ZODIAC.